It was a day for optimism at East Tennessee State as coaches for the school’s fall sports teams met with the media.
This time of year, everybody is undefeated, and all the teams are looking forward to getting their respective seasons underway in the coming weeks.
And why not?
The men’s soccer team is coming off an Atlantic Sun Conference championship and its first NCAA tournament appearance ever. The women’s soccer team is hoping a new coach breathes new life into the program. The volleyball team came within a game of winning the A-Sun tournament and has some new faces. The cross country teams, being led by a legendary figure entering his 50th year as an ETSU coach, have some international runners coming in to try to raise the program’s profile.
The most optimistic team on campus this season should be the men’s soccer squad. The Bucs have the nucleus back from a team that went 15-6, won the conference championship and narrowly lost 3-2 to the College of Charleston in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“I think we set a pretty high bar for the program based on last year’s performance,” said Scott Calabrese, who was voted the A-Sun’s coach of the year after the banner season. “What we’re looking to do is build on that. I think the guys are excited and ready to go and hungry.”
A couple of returning players are the focal point of the team. Itode Fubara, a sophomore forward from Nigeria, was chosen as the league’s preseason player of the year. The A-Sun’s freshman of the year and tournament MVP had four goals last year and created a lot of scoring opportunities with his ball skills and speed.
Aaron Schoenfeld, a senior forward from Knoxville, was the team’s leading scorer with seven goals as a junior.
“Everyone in the locker room is talking about how excited we are to get back on the field,” Schoenfeld said. “Everyone knows the potential we have.”
The team lost two starters, including all-conference defender Guilherme Reis.
The entire A-Sun tournament will be played at Summers-Taylor Stadium, where the Bucs went 9-1 last season. ETSU hosted the semifinals and finals last year after earning the No. 1 seeding in the tournament.
“I think it gives us the greatest possible advantage,” Calabrese said. “It worked out very well for us last year.”
The women’s soccer team has a new coach in Adam Sayers, who takes over for Heather Henson, now the coach at Belmont.
The Bucs went 8-7-3 last year and finished tied for sixth in the A-Sun. Sayers, a Tusculum College graduate who came to ETSU from South Florida, is here to try to improve on that mark.
“We’re just over a week in now and it’s been fantastic,” Sayers said. “The enthusiasm of the players has been first class. We’ve really made a lot of progress.”
That progress will be made with a young team. With nine freshmen and nine sophomores on the 25-player roster, ETSU could expect to go through some growing pains.
“Our primary goal with so many young players is the development of the squad and the familiarity with the new style of play, familiarity with the conference and the teams we will be facing each year,” Sayers said.
The new coach is expecting a lot of leadership from three seniors, midfielder Genna Petersen, defender Jessica Hiltenbrand and goalkeeper Caitlyn Gaughn. Juniors Tori Head and Morgan Thomas should play key roles as well.
Two of the incoming freshmen, Jasmin Dutton and Ellis Parsons, were members of Wales’ junior national teams.
The Bucs opened the preseason with a 1-1 draw against Campbell in an exhibition game.
The cross country teams are being run by legendary coach Dave Walker, who begins his 50th year as a coach at ETSU.
“I came here in ’62 with the idea of getting my Masters and returning to Atlanta,” said Walker, who recently turned 80. “I had a principal’s job waiting but I stayed. And I’ve been here ever since.
“It’s been a good road, bumpy at times, but we always recovered. I always managed to get a couple of good kids that make me look good.”
Walker is hoping those two kids this year are Filip Jalovy of the Czech Republic and Anders Ludvigsen of Denmark.
“They could be our top runners,” Walker said. “Don’t be surprised if Anders is No. 1 for us.”
ETSU lost all-conference runner Ben Ronoh to graduation.
Landon Milhorn is the top returner, and Walker needs contributions from sophomores Desmond Pierce and Sean Duffy, whose father Gerry ran for ETSU.
“I’m not real optimistic yet because I haven’t seen them in competition,” Walker said. “We could be competitive.”
On the women’s side, newcomers Isabelle Grosskopf of Germany and Melissa Peters of Mesa, Ariz., should be two of ETSU’s top runners.
The top returner is Caitlyn Epps, who is recovering from a hip injury.
Volleyball coach Lindsey Devine doesn’t mince any words when talking about her team’s goals for this season.
“Win,” she says. “Everybody in Division I, if they’re not here to win, then they shouldn’t be coaches. That’s our expectation and the girls know that’s our expectation.
“From what I’ve seen in the last few days, I’m really impressed with our group.”
The Bucs figured out how to win last year in a big way. Their 26-9 record was a 15-win improvement from the previous year.
The team, which advanced to the A-Sun finals last year, lost six seniors.
Megan Devine was the league’s freshman of the year last season and was on the A-Sun preseason all-conference team this year. Seniors McKayla Barber and Kiley Tamblyn should play big roles as well.
A pair of freshmen from Kingsport, Meredith Hardy and Jamie Rutledge, are expected to contribute right away.
“The incoming freshman class we have, they’re pretty talented,” Devine said. “They’re physically strong and very impressive.”
Devine has two new assistant coaches in Michelle Piantadosi and Lauren Baufield. Piantadosi is a former star player at Tennessee and played on the ATP Tour. Baufield played for Devine at ETSU.
The Bucs will play only eight games at home this season thanks to a new scheduling quirk from the conference which has broken teams into two divisions. Schools play members of their own division twice and the other teams once.
“We have four preseason tournaments,” Devine said. “I wanted to get the young team out on the road, go play those games and figure out what we need to do and then iron our the kinks. When we do open up, we’re gonna be in a good spot.”
Playing away from home isn’t necessarily a negative, Megan Devine said.
“It’s actually exciting to go away because if you beat somebody on their home court, they’re disappointed to lose at home,” she said. “We can play our best wherever we go.”