Strength in numbers. That's what Fredonia Blue Devil men's soccer head coach P.J. Gondek was hoping to find when he hit the recruiting trail after last season.
Quantity is what Gondek got. The Blue Devils will dress 15 new players - four transfers and 11 freshmen - when they open their season Friday afternoon in Washington, D.C. versus Hampden-Sydney. As many as eight of the newcomers could be the starting lineup - so Gondek feels he recruited quality, too.
How quickly the heavy influx of new players can assimilate with the returning players will go a long way toward determining how much improvement the Blue Devils make over last season's 5-12-1 final record.
"We didn't just look at volume," he said. "We looked at the quality of recruits, and we didn't want to stop at just a couple. We wanted to bring in as many impact players as we could. If nothing else, we've created a lot of competition so our returning guys know there's someone nipping at their heels - and for some of them, (newcomers) have already passed them, so they know they need to stay sharp to get in the lineup."
"It's absolutely a different approach for us," he continued. "In the offseason, we were looking for something fresh. We knew if we brought in some quality players, we could sell the competition and constant evaluation week to week for the guys who want to play. That certainly has helped us to create the competition in training, but we haven't played a game yet. Hopefully, we'll see the fruits of our labor."
Gondek envisions all four transfers seeing significant playing time this fall. He's expecting junior Sammy Torrelli to open the season at goalkeeper. Torrelli is a two-year veteran from Monroe Community College, where he was a teammate of sophomore forward/defender James Ritchie. Also coming from the juco ranks is junior defender Gayang Ayol, while sophomore Brian Theuerkauf comes to Fredonia after playing one season at Medaille.
The freshman class is led by defender Hunter Critchlow, who was a high school All-American at Fairport High School. He and midfielder Josh McIntosh were both All-Greater Rochester all-stars, and Gondek was told by another Division III coach that those two were his top freshmen recruits last off-season.
"Early indications are he's everything that we hoped he'd be," Gondek said of Critchlow, a central defender with a high soccer IQ. "He's better than any freshman I've ever had, at least at being right in the lineup immediately. (He) didn't miss a beat (in the) first scrimmage, started telling people what to do, going here, going there. He's very physical, but he's very heady, and he doesn't make a lot of bad decisions. He's also good offensively in the box, so I think he'll score some goals for us."
Freshman forward Mohamed Hussein, born in Kenya, and forward/defender Ryan Ross are two other newcomers who have impressed Gondek so far. Hussein brings an ability to break down defenses with his speed, while Ross has toughness in his bloodlines. His older brother, Bobby, was a four-time All SUNYAC player at Brockport.
Among the returning players, senior midfielder Chase Lipshie and junior Mike Biggane are likely starters Friday along with junior central defender Keith Braun. Junior forward Vinny Chimento and sophomore midfielder Ryan Keller are also likely to see significant playing time.
"We look like we have some depth," Gondek said, "so when injuries come, we can sustain those injuries. It seems like every year the last couple of years, we had a big injury that we just couldn't contend with. We've got a couple (injuries) now, yet we seem OK, which tells me maybe we have a better roster than we did the last couple of years."
In a team vote last spring, Lipshie, Biggane and senior goalkeeper A.J. Grecco were elected team captains. Gondek believes each player brings a certain quality to the role.
"A.J. Grecco is our most well-rounded (captain)," Gondek said. "He's a great kid and does well in school. He's kind of the moral, character authority, so to speak. Michael Biggane looks out for the team probably the best of the three. He'll do some of the day-to-day things that need to get done to get the team going in the right direction every day. (And) Chase is more of a field player. Chase, when you watch him play, you hear his voice all the time. He's directing people."
Friday's game against the Hampden-Sydney is part of The "Turk" D.C. Classic hosted by Catholic University. Game time is 3:30 p.m. Saturday's pre-determined schedule has the Blue Devils facing traditionally strong Dickinson at 2 p.m. The Red Devils are ranked No. 24 in the National Soccer Coaches' NCAA Division III pre-season poll.
The Blue Devils will then have six days to prepare for Mount Saint Mary in the Friday, Sept. 5, nightcap of the Clarion Inn Blue Devil Classic at University Stadium.