CONWAY — In discussing the roster he’ll return for next season, Coastal Carolina men’s soccer coach Shaun Docking said he expects to have only one key departure after the Chanticleers’ memorable run to the third round of the NCAA tournament this fall.
Of course, that one is senior forward Ashton Bennett, who will go down as one of the top players to ever come through the program.
And Bennett’s legacy gained another boost Wednesday as he was named one of 15 semifinalists for the Missouri Athletic Club’s Hermann Trophy, which is considered the highest individual award in college soccer. It’s the second year in a row Bennett has made the cut of semifinalists and he is the only repeat selection on the list.
“It’s a great feeling,” Bennett said. “When [I was] told this morning, I was heading to class and it put a smile on my face being recognized like that.”
After leading all Division I players in goals last season with 23 while helping the Chants to the second round of the NCAA tournament, Bennett followed up with a strong encore performance, leading the team with 16 goals to go with nine assists and helping Coastal to the third round of the tournament for just the second time in program history. The Chants’ season ended Sunday with a 5-1 loss at Maryland, where Bennett was the lone goal-scorer.
Bennett had the option to leave school after his junior season and received indications he might be a high pick in the Major League Soccer SuperDraft, but he chose to return and Docking thinks that decision paid off for both the player and the Chants.
“I think he’s a much more complete forward now having stayed since last year,” Docking said. “I think he’s really worked on his game and really improved in so many different areas. Obviously, he was a marked man this year and to be able to score 16 goals after scoring 23 last year I think was a significant achievement when he’s a marked man and everybody in the country knows about him. I think he’s going to have a great professional career ahead of him.”
Docking said Bennett could have professional soccer options in Europe or his native Jamaica in addition to the MLS SuperDraft. As for those options, Bennett said, “I just want to play, to be honest.”
“My future looks bright, based on the stats and all the stories that are out there,” he said. “I just hope that I really get the opportunity to play because anything can happen. We have to cross our fingers and hope everything works out and see [how] I can adapt and perform at the next level.”
As for the collegiate level, Bennett left his mark at Coastal while leading the program to 20 wins this season – matching the school and Big South Conference record – and 38 wins over the last two seasons while needing just two years to rank sixth on the program’s all-time goals list.
“Joseph Ngwenya (program record 66 goals from 2000-03) was probably the best attacking player we have had here in my time, and I think [Bennett] rates right up there with Joe,” Docking said. “I think it will be interesting to see how he does professionally and where his path takes him.”
The voting for the Hermann Trophy will be done by Division I head coaches with membership in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, and three finalists will be announced on Dec. 6. They’ll then be invited to St. Louis, Mo., with the award being formally presented on Jan. 11.
As for the Chants, Docking hopes matching the program’s best-ever finish proves to be only the start for the group that returns next season.
Among the key players returning are midfielder Pedro Ribeiro (a 2011 third-team NSCAA All-American; five goals, 10 assists this season as a junior), forward Ricky Garbanzo (13 goals, five assists as a sophomore), a slew of defenders who gave the Chants a formidable backline this year and both main goalkeepers in Federico Bertele (0.76 goals-against average in 19 regular-season starts) and Mark Petrus (who started the team’s three postseason games).
“We’ve got most everybody returning, so we’re excited about that and looking forward to it,” Docking said. “And hopefully [we’ll] continue to bring in a few more players and continue building the program to go a round further next year. That’s the expectation.”
That means continuing to close the gap with the bigger-name programs in the region. The Chants have had their season ended the last two years by ACC powers North Carolina and Maryland.
“The guys have lost to the No. 1 ACC team in the last two years, and I think our goal is to [be on par with] the best in the ACC next year so if we’re coming up against these kind of programs in the future then we can beat the ACC champions,” Docking said. “That’s our goal for next year, and for us to get out of this region, that’s what we have to do to get to a Final Four.”
The Coastal women’s indoor track and field team opens its season Saturday at Clemson in the Orange & Purple Winter Classic, and it will be the Chants’ first chance to see promising freshman Jessica Gelibert in action.
Gelibert won the 400-meter hurdles at the New Balance High School National Championships and was a two-time New York state champion in that event. She chose Coastal over Tennessee and North Carolina, and coach Alan Connie didn’t hesitate to call her the “best recruit we ever had.”
“It’s the first time we’ve ever had a [high school] national champion. Her last two [recruiting] visits were Tennessee and North Carolina before she committed to us,” he said. “She just loved Coastal. Her high school coach in Bay Shore, Long Island, and I go back a long way, so he had put in a real good word about us and said, ‘Take a look at this school.’ ”
She isn’t the only newcomer Connie thinks can make a quick impact, though.
Jalacy Green joins the team out of Walterboro, S.C., as a three-time shot put and discus state champion and the reigning ESPN Gatorade Track and Field Athlete of the Year for South Carolina, and overall the Chants welcome 18 freshmen into the program.
“On paper, they’re the best freshmen group we’ve had, so we’ll see,” Connie said.
The team is led, meanwhile, by senior Erica Peake – the Big South Most Outstanding Track Athlete for the outdoor season last spring. She’ll represent the Chants in the 60 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4x400-meter relay this winter.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.