One could argue that geography worked against the UC Irvine men's soccer program when it fell into the newly created four-team South Division of the Big West Conference this season. But with an ambitious, some might say imposing schedule that includes road games at four of the top 11 teams in the national preseason coaches' poll, Anteaters Coach George Kuntz has proved that when it comes to finding top-flight competition, UCI knows no boundaries.
No. 13-ranked UCI has averaged 15 wins the last four seasons, during which it has won three conference regular-season and three conference tournament titles and made three NCAA Tournament appearances.
But since reaching the Sweet 16 in 2008, Kuntz's club has lost its two NCAA Tournament contests, both second-round matches in 2011 and 2009.
A suspect schedule and a first-round conference-tournament loss in 2010 led to an NCAA snub. It also may have contributed to the 2012 schedule that includes No. 2-ranked UCLA, No. 6 New Mexico and No. 7 Louisville, to go with Big West rival UC Santa Barbara, ranked No. 11.
Kuntz said the nonconference heavyweights may help offset a Big West South Division in which UCI is the clear favorite. Joining UCI in the South are Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Northridge and UC Riverside.
The North Division, meanwhile groups UCSB, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Sacramento State and UC Davis.
"The North is really tough," said Kuntz, whose team will play each South rival twice, while meeting each North school only once. "Then, the winner of the South plays the No. 2 team from the North and the No. 1 from the North plays the No. 2 team from the South [in the conference tournament semifinals]."
UCI, which opens the season Friday at the University of San Diego, will visit UCLA on Sept. 9, trek to New Mexico on Sept. 16 and venture to Louisville on Oct. 24. It's regular-season battle at UCSB is Oct. 5.
The Anteaters return first-team all-conference defender Everett Pitts, a third-year starter, to anchor a defense that lost four-year starting goalkeeper Andrew Fontein, the 2011 Big West Goalkeeper of the Year who is UCI's all-time leader with 29 career shutouts.
Junior defender Marco Franco also returns after earning second-team all-conference laurels in 2011, when UCI finished 16-6-1, 6-3-1 in conference.
UCI lost offensive catalysts Miguel Ibarra, the Big West Co-Offensive Player of the Year last season, and Christian Hernandez, a midfielder who earned first-team all-conference laurels. Ibarra had nine goals and eight assists last season, when Hernandez chipped in seven goals and 10 assists.
Back is oft-injured forward-midfielder Enrique Cardenas, a junior who produced six goals and three assists to rank third on the team with 15 points last season.
Christopher Santana, who joined Pitts on the preseason all-conference team, had four goals and five assists as a sophomore to help UCI outscore opponents, 45-24.
"He has been electric in preseason training," Kuntz said of Santana, a forward who along with forward Trey Hayes earned honorable mention in all-conference voting last season.
Hayes, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, had four goals and one assist in his first collegiate campaign and Kuntz said maturity has helped Hayes make great strides in the off-season.
"If he changes the way we think he can, he will be a monster in this league," Kuntz said of Hayes.
Cameron Iwasa, another sophomore who made an impact last season, has continued to display the kind of energy that led to three goals, including two game-winners, and an assist in the final six games of 2011.
"He's a hard worker with speed and tenacity who scores goals," Kuntz said of Iwasa.
Adding help on the back line will be sophomore Victor Calderon, who saw plenty of action last season.
Tarek Morad, a junior defender and midfielder, is also expected to contribute, while Kuntz said junior Jake Marcon could help fortify the defense.
Michael Breslin, a 6-2 redshirt freshman, is the front-runner at goalkeeper, where freshmen Elliot Farmer and Reed Zaiss are also in the mix.
Other freshmen who could chip in, Kuntz said, are midfielder Gor Kirakosyan, forward Pavle Atanackovic, forward Thom Castro, forward-midfielder Renato Torquato, midfielder Omar Dweik and defender Mats Bjurman.
Antanackovic scored 100 career goals at La Crescenta High.
"The one thing I noticed about the new guys is that they fight and scrap and they really have that desire," Kuntz said. "They don't like to lose."
Kuntz said Juan "Crabby" Gutierrez, a heralded recruit from JSerra High who had two goals in 14 games as a freshman forward last season, is no longer in the program.
Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun