The Loyola men's soccer team earned new-found respect last fall, at the place that in recent years has come to symbolize college soccer at its finest.
After qualifying for the NCAA tournament for the first time in six seasons and cracking the Top 20 for the first time, the Greyhounds won their first-round playoff game against James Madison, then faced two-time defending national champion Virginia.
Loyola nearly pulled off an upset, thanks to terrific goalkeeping by Zach Thornton and an unlikely shot by Dave Briles that gave the Greyhounds a 1-0, second-half lead. Virginia stormed back in the final 15 minutes to win, 2-1, then went on to win the national championship easily. Loyola was the only team that led Virginia throughout the tournament.
The Greyhounds will try to build on that experience this fall. They are coming off a 19-3-1 season. They are easily the best of the mediocre Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. And they return nine starters.
The best is Thornton, a senior who led the nation with 17 shutouts and a 0.42 goals-against average. Thornton is a preseason All-America selection, and the main reason Loyola is ranked 19th in the Intercollegiate Soccer Association of America (coaches) preseason poll.
Replacing defenders Billy Harte and Chris Sim will be Loyola's most pressing chore. Briles will move to the backfield from the midfield to help Mike Barger and Mike Konopaski. MAAC Player of the Year Marc Harrison leads a superb midfield unit, and on the front line, senior forward Bill Wnek should rebound from an off year. After scoring 13 goals in 1992, Wnek got only five last year.
Fifteen-year coach Bill Sento needs 14 victories to reach 200, and Sento should enjoy that milestone by the time the postseason rolls around, which has an additional twist for Loyola this year. The MAAC winner does not receive an automatic bid, and the Greyhounds could either gain an at-large bid or earn an LTC NCAA berth by beating the Atlantic 10 conference winner in a play-in contest. That means Loyola could end up traveling to Rutgers -- ranked as high as fifth in preseason polls -- to play its way into the national tournament.
Here is a rundown of the rest of the area teams:
* UMBC: The Retrievers, who lost five starters to graduation, are still picked to finish second in the Big South conference, largely because junior M J. J. Kremer (13 goals, 10 assists), the league's leading scorer last year and most prolific in UMBC's Division I history, is back. Fourth-year coach Pete Caringi (41-14-2) signed a five-year contract extension this summer, but has only two seniors back from the team that set a school record with 15 victories. Junior F Bryan Bugarin (9 goals, 6 assists) should join Kremer as a major offensive threat.
* TOWSON STATE: The Tigers are coming off their first losing season since 1987. They have only two seniors in F Pat Coyle and M Chris Zimmerman, and they've lost most of their defense, including four-time All-Big South G Rich Pellegrini. Freshmen Kevin Henderson and Ian Wildey, members of the Eastern Regional Olympic Developmental Squad, should offer immediate help. The offense should be paced by Coyle (9 goals, 2 assists) and junior F Todd Hicks, who tied a single-season school record with 10 assists.
* MARYLAND: The Terps went 3-14-1 last season, including seven one-goal losses and three overtime losses. F Malcolm Gillian led the team with 16 points, including seven goals. F Shane Dougherty, the Baltimore Sun's Player of the Year at Fallston High School two years ago, scored six points as a freshman and could develop into an impact player. The Terps had only one conference victory last year, and in the tough ACC, they probably won't do much better this year.
* NAVY: The Midshipmen fell to 5-10-3 last year -- only their fourth losing season in 19 years under coach Greg Myers -- but they lost only one of their final six games. Senior M Seth Walters, the team's leading scorer last year, has been a three-year starter, but he needs to improve on 3-for-27 shooting.
* MOUNT ST. MARY'S: Mark Mettrick replaces Jim Deegan, who stepped down in January after 38 seasons as coach. The Mountaineers return eight starters from last year's 6-11 team. Junior Mike Faubert scored a team-high seven goals last year, but a season-ending knee surgery may force him to the backfield. Dan Gaertner (12 points), Jose Cornejo (nine) and Mike Connolly (six) are back on attack, and Faubert could help a defense that gave up 27 goals during a 10-game losing streak.
* UMES: The Hawks are striving for respectability in their third year of existence. They will try to rebound from a 2-17 season and will follow the lead of sophomore M Kimandi Binns, the team's MVP last year.
* WESTERN MARYLAND: The Green Terrors went 3-13-1 last year, lost their leading scorer in Scott Schoberg (6 goals, 2 assists) and were outscored by a 42-21 margin. Rick Estes (Dundalk) and Matt Catona lead the offense.
* WASHINGTON COLLEGE: The Shoremen (7-9-3 last season) will start at least five freshmen, including midfielders Scott Helm (Perryville) and Erik Dahlen (Chesapeake). Sophomore F Andrew King (4 goals, 4 assists) moves from the midfield.
* FROSTBURG STATE: The Bobcats will try to recover from the loss of their entire defense from last year's 9-5-4 team. Senior Tom Carey and G Dave Terry will lead the way, along with Tom Gould (12 goals, 5 assists) and Greg Hostetler (13 goals, 1 assist).
* SALISBURY STATE: The Sea Gulls made their first playoff appearance since 1985 last year, winning 10 straight games at one point before finishing 11-7-1. Top players back are senior G Joe Herman, junior F Willie Morris (7 goals, 7 assists), sophomore F Eric Viggiano (8 goals) and sophomore M Matt Tirschman (8 goals, 1 assist).
* GOUCHER: For the Gophers (9-10 last season), seniors Steve Montgomery and Percy Moore anchor the front line and Seth Bachman and Pat Prendergast lead the midfield.
* JOHNS HOPKINS: Seven starters are back from last year's 9-6 team, led by junior Matt Coleman, who moved from defense to midfield last year and produced seven goals and one assist.
* ST. MARY'S: The Seahawks, coming off a 6-11 season, will be led by three first-team, All-Capital Athletic Conference players -- forwards John McManus (Severna Park) and Darren Hawkins and stopper Jeff Sack.