Five All-MAC players will lead charge

By Sean Connor

The time has finally arrived.

Just two seasons ago NIU men’s soccer coach Steve Simmons took over a program that had four wins.

After a three-win season in 2003, Simmons has the program headed in the other direction, leading them to a 12-7 mark last fall.

NIU begins its season at 5 p.m. today hosting Marquette.

“We’re competing for the MAC title,” Simmons said. “We believe we can beat anyone in the country, but we can also lose to anyone in the country.”

The 2004 MAC Coach of the Year brings back 16 letter winners and nine starters from a team that finished over .500 for the first time in five years. The Huskies are picked to finish second in the MAC, with Akron topping the list.

Sophomore Curt Zastrow exploded onto the scene for NIU last fall. In his rookie year he collected second team All-American, All-MAC first team and MAC Newcomer of the Year awards.

Zastrow finished with eight goals while assisting on two. The North Freedom, Wis., native scored the game-winning goal three times last year.

“What’s in the past is done,” Zastrow said. “I know people will be expecting things from me, but what I did last year has nothing to do with this year.

The Huskies also return 2004 All-MAC first-team selection Jose Alvarado and second-team selections Justin McGrane, Fraser Gibson and Steve Goletz.

However, Simmons isn’t guaranteeing anyone playing time.

“Everyone is going to have an equal opportunity to compete for time on the field and positions,” Simmons said.

More importantly, Simmons said everyone, including the freshmen, passed his eight-level preseason fitness test.

When he implemented his test the first season, many of the players had trouble making it through the series of intermediate runs and sprints, Simmons said.

From here on, Simmons is expecting his seniors and juniors to lead the way.

“(Senior) Brendon Parrish had a great spring,” Simmons said. “And Paul Gabel and Steve Goletz will be leading us on defense.”

Goletz, in his third year with the team, will be a redshirt sophomore. He led an NIU defense that allowed 19 goals last season, the first time the team allowed that few since 1989.

A Dunoon, Scotland native, Gabel has been moved to middle defender from midfield and will be paired with sophomore Steve Algozino to replace graduate Bruce Conrad.

On offense, Simmons’ crew returns Zastrow and sophomores Cody Russell and Gibson.

The latter are from Arizona and Scotland, respectively.

The three, along with Parrish, combined for 15 of NIU’s 30 goals last season as the Huskies had 12 players score at least one goal.

Simmons also believes juniors McGrane and Kevin Woerner can become the best flank players in the MAC.

The conference consists of only five teams, but will still receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament this season after losing Kentucky and Marshall to Conference USA.

“Our guys are going to be exciting to watch,” Simmons said. “We want to win the regular-season MAC title so we can host the MAC Tournament.”