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Last year’s 8-6 season was one of the rare times the College of Southern Maryland men’s soccer program was not among the elite mix of teams vying for a Maryland Junior College Conference crown or a Region XX title since ascending to powerhouse status in 2002.

The Hawks finished a fourth-place 8-3 in the league while losing their first game of the regional tournament in 1-0 overtime fashion to the same Essex club they had beaten in overtime during the regular season.

The season before in 2011, CSM had experienced a major breakthrough with advancing to the national tournament after capturing the Region XX title and the subsequent North-Central District crown.

But being unable to continue those lofty strides last year hardly meant this upcoming fall campaign is about to commence with little momentum from a season ago.

In fact, CSM head coach Derek Dyson looks back on last year — an 11th straight winning campaign for the Hawks — in favorable fashion and believes this new season approaching will provide at least more of the same, if not be a step up.

“We lost a couple heartbreakers last year, it was tough to bounce back from that,” Dyson recalled. “I think we did very well with what we had, and given the guys we had lost, we had a better season than I even expected last year. I was pleased making it to the regional semis that Essex beat us in.

“It gives me faith in the program that we do know what we’re doing if we can get that far with what we had.”

Last year’s team featured few returning faces. This season will present even fewer familiar faces in a CSM uniform as all but two players are freshmen.

In fact, the team is so young that Dyson’s three captains are all freshmen: forward striker Sean Bucior (Chopticon), midfielder Andy Castro and goalie Lee Clark.

“The thing about having so many freshmen come in, they don’t really feel the pressure [of living up to the program’s past greatness],” Dyson said. “All they really hear are stories. Now that they’re here, they see the plaques on the walls so [they’re saying], ‘Hey, we want to do that too.’”

Clark is a high-energy player between the pipes, always ready to make a hustling play as evident in the Hawks practices. He also happens to be the only international player on the club, arriving to Southern Maryland from England.

Usually CSM features at least several players from other countries, but Dyson and his staff — which features a pair of players from only a season ago in Kyle Toepfer (Ryken) and Ryan Garvin (Thomas Stone) as assistants — landed the bulk of this season’s recruits from Southern Maryland and surrounding northern counties in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

“We’re going to look to go out and play attractive attacking football to try to put the other team under pressure,” Clark said with his English accent, displaying his native roots by referring to soccer as football. “We’re going to have a good season this year. We have a good squad of players. We’re hungry, it’s a hungry team. Everyone’s inspiration is to do well. Everyone is working hard for each other.

“I think I can learn from these coaches and develop, and that’s what I’m here to do.”

He added, “If we work hard like we do [in practice], teams are going to be afraid of us and I’m sure we’ll have a really good season.”

Bucior and Castro also share Clark’s mindset of not pressing as a young team to live up to the high accomplishments of past CSM seasons. The team subscribes to the popular mantra of taking this season one game and one step at a time.

“I wanted to come here because I knew it had a winning tradition [in place], and at Chopticon we didn’t really have that. We had to create that ourselves,” Bucior said. “Everybody that comes here works hard, and they all want to get to as far as we can go and reach our full potential. We don’t really look at the past [in terms of what we can do this season] because the past already happened. We look to move on to the future and see what we can improve on because we have a lot of freshmen.”

Castro added, “I’m excited. I’m trying to do my best and give as much as I can, bringing my best ability to the team. And I’m hoping everybody else can do the same and have a successful year. I like our team. I’m not going to say it’s the best, but we’re working at it. We have good chemistry on the field.”

Dyson feels the current makeup of these Hawks is deeper and has improved talent in more positions than his team a year ago.

“Everybody wants to win. The ideal goal is to make it to nationals [like we did two years ago],” he said. “I can’t overlook the teams [in the Maryland JUCO] that we have to face — the Harfords, the Essexes, the Rockvilles, the rivalries that we’ve had and developed over the years. It’s certainly going to be tough to get past those guys.

“[Making the national tournament] would be the end goal. I think this year’s team has the potential to be better [than last year’s club].”

The team’s fitness level entering this preseason is the best for Dyson in his three seasons as the program’s head coach. He was formerly the right-hand assistant under Tony Galeano from 2002 through 2010.

“I was trying to kill them in preseason [with conditioning tests], and I couldn’t break any of them,” Dyson said. “They run miles like it’s nothing. So I’m very pleased with the fitness, and it’s allowed us [as a coaching staff] to go on [and focus] on the technical and tactical things without spending so much time on fitness.”

College of Southern Maryland men’s soccer

Head coach: Derek Dyson (third season)

Last year: 8-6, 8-3 (fourth in MDJUCO)

Athletes to watch: GK Lee Clark (Fr.), M Andy Castro (Fr.), F Sean Bucior (Fr., Chopticon)

Key personnel losses: D Kyle Toepfer (St. Mary’s Ryken, All-MDJUCO), D Ryan Garvin (Thomas Stone, All-MDJUCO), F Steve Njike (All-MDJUCO)

Strengths: The Hawks are deeper and more talented across the board than they were last year, particularly at midfield. Combine their high level of fitness, the best of any team entering the preseason under Dyson, with a team-first mentality of sacrificing personal glory for what produces the best winning formula, and the team possesses an array of “born winners,” according to Dyson.

There is a high contingency of Southern Maryland talent on the roster, especially from St. Mary’s County, so this will be a team that truly reflects the region.

Weaknesses: All but two players are brand new to the program as freshmen, so inexperience and lack of sophomore leadership are the biggest hurdles for the club to overcome. The freshman trio of Bucior, Castro and Clark has been named captains. Dyson will also be playing some players out of their natural positions while the Hawks lack the physical size, particularly in the midfield, usually associated with a contending junior college team.

Nonetheless, the coach believes his new-look team will make up for its lack of size with plenty of heart and a high level of hunger.

Coach’s comments: “Regardless of what our record was [last year], I know through word of mouth from their coaches that the other teams still get up to play CSM. They realize that our program itself is good. It’s successful, it’s been successful. I don’t think [other Maryland JUCO teams] are looking at us as the underdog [given our inexperience] and record [last year]. I feel like we’re still one of the top dogs in the race. It’s going to take some doing this year, but the kids are willing to put in the work.”

Key games: Sept. 17 vs. Montgomery-Rockville, Oct. 2 at Harford, Oct. 8 vs. Essex

DALLAS COGLE

dcogle@somdnews.com