HARTSVILLE, S.C. – Leaving a conference on a high note is always a great feeling. Making a statement in the new one might be even better. For this year's Coker men's soccer team, that opportunity is on the table for the 2013 season.
The Cobras begin play in the South Atlantic Conference after winning back-to-back regular-season championships in Conference Carolinas. As newcomers in the SAC, Coker was voted fifth in the preseason coaches' poll.
"I think we can use it as motivation," head coach Paul Leese said. "There are several teams that haven't seen us play yet and aren't familiar with us, so hopefully we play well and finish better than our preseason ranking."
Playing in a new conference will be exciting, but the Cobras will have something to prove. They left Conference Carolinas on a high note and are now the fresh meat of the conference.
"We feel good leaving Conference Carolinas as champions the last two years and now obviously would like to challenge for a conference championship in the SAC," Leese said. "We know it's going to be tough. There are some very strong teams, but we want to play against the best teams in the country so we're very excited about that."
The Cobras lost 10 seniors to graduation from a team that was wildly successful in Conference Carolinas. Of those 10, the team had two former conference players of the year in Carlos Recinos and Niko Tikkonen, and another was last year's Murphy Osborne winner James Sweeney.
"Replacing those seniors is going to be tough," said Leese, who begins his fifth season at Coker. "But I think the legacy that they're passing along to the younger players will help us pick up where we left off."
While there's plenty to replace from the graduation class, Leese has several returners who are impact players, including captains Stephen Scrivens and Brendan McCarron, both seniors, and junior Tony Quiroz. Seniors Akeem Prendes and Daniel Jackson and juniors Fernando Bedoya and Matt Taylor are also expected to carry much of the weight.
"It's time for these guys to really step up and be leaders," Leese said. "They've already built a tremendous amount of respect from the team coming off the spring season. We're confident that their leadership will be strong and that we can be successful with this year's group. It should be another exciting year for us."
The Cobras begin their season at the Clayton State Tournament. They face the University of Tampa in the opener at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7.