Despite setbacks, HPU men's soccer looks to contend
This year’s High Point University men’s soccer team is one of its youngest in recent history. But, instead of that being a deterrent to success, the Panthers are using it as an opportunity to build their program.
With 12 seniors gone from last year’s team and injuries plaguing the preseason, the Panthers will feature a number of young, talented recruits to complement several notable returnees and expect to contend atop the Big South Conference.
They open their season in the VCU Rams Classic with games against Old Dominion on Friday and UAB on Sunday in Richmond, Va. Their first home game will be Sept. 14 against Navy.
“When you try to make the jump from being a really good program to a great, nationally elite program, you’re going to have a year like this where the leap’s going to be big,” said coach Dustin Fonder, entering his seventh season, earlier this week in his Steele Center office.
“At some point, you have to make it. And we’re trying to take that next step as a program. This is the first step in that process, and I think this step will lead into the next three years. This year’s group (of incoming players) should be where we want to be.”
Five starters return for High Point, which finished 12-5-3 overall and 5-3-2 in the Big South and were nationally ranked — goalkeeper Kody Palmer, the Big South Freshman of the Year, as well as sophomore defenders Austin Yearwood and Erien Campbell, senior midfielder and captain Adam Sewell and junior forward Mamadee Nyepon.
Nyepon was the leading scorer for the Panthers, who started last season 10-0-1 before finishing fifth in the Big South regular season and falling in the second round of the conference tournament. He is also the Big South’s top returning scorer this year.
“We feel like, with Kody in goal, Adam in the middle and Mamadee up top, the spine of our team will at least have experience,” Fonder said. “What we’re trying to do is fill in the complementary areas of the field and get better each week. But we need these guys to step up and have big years.
“We lost 12 players — and we had a nice four-year run with those 12 seniors — but we still have key guys coming back to have the necessary leadership to be successful. We don’t see this year as being a step back or sideways. We expect to move forward. And to do that, those key pieces have to lead us where we want to go.”
High Point also features a strong recruiting class, ranked No. 24 in the country, with 12 true freshmen — many of whom could see increased time this season. But one who won’t be on the field is Tony Murillo, ranked No. 5 in the country by ESPN Rise.
He suffered a knee injury and is out for the season. The losses of Murillo and sophomore defender Kevin Fallet, who is anticipated to return mid-season, are notable setbacks to start the season, with a host of other players also missing time.
But the idea is to challenge the players who are healthy to work hard and improve during a challenging nonconference schedule and hopefully the team, which was selected No. 3 in the Big South preseason, will be strong for a late-season push.
“I think it’s incredibly hard for both the coaches and the players (to have patience) because you want to win so badly,” Fonder said. “But, as coaches, we have to do a really good job of selling them on the process. And if we can stay focused on that and on the journey, I think we’ll get to where we want to be.”