ST. GEORGE – The most dominant team in PacWest men’s soccer history is back. Well, mostly.
The team that garnered more postseason honors than any Dixie State team in Division II history and returns eight starters and six All-PacWest, two All-West Region and one All-American (Bryan Baugh) is set to continue its run this Thursday with its opening match at Northwest Nazarene.
The meteoric rise that Dixie State has experienced from the bottom to the top of the PacWest standings has still not won many converts outside of St. George.
In 2014, DSU stumbled through a 2-14 season.
“That was my freshman year,” said senior Baugh. “It was very difficult to get through.”
The following year, Dixie State hired Josh Pittman as head coach. This year’s new head coach, Jonny Broadhead, has a unique perspective on Pittman. He helped Pittman coach Colorado Mesa before Pittman took the Dixie State position.
“We kept in contact throughout that year,” said Broadhead. “He had to convince his team to give up control of the ball during matches in exchange for a stalwart defense that would not allow teams to score. It was not necessarily exciting soccer, but it produced wins.”
Indeed, the Blazers finished with an impressive 10-2-4 season and played for the conference championship against Fresno State. The following season, DSU was picked to finish seventh in the PacWest preseason poll. After an unimpressive beginning (0-3), the Trailblazers rattled off 15 straight wins, finished undefeated in the PacWest and garnered their first invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
“They had more talent last year,” said Broadhead. “They did not have to sacrifice defense to take control of the ball. In 2015, it was play great defense and get lucky occasionally with a counterstrike. In 2016 they had very inexperienced, but very talented midfield and forward lines.”
This year, the Trailblazers return more starters than any other team in the PacWest – only to be picked third.
“Honestly, we don’t put much stock in the preseason polls,” said Baugh. “We are focused on improving each practice and playing well.”
Another development over the summer was the overhaul of Legend Solar Stadium. Last year, the Trailblazers were not afforded the opportunity to host the NCAA opening round because the field was not regulation size. That changed with the construction done in the offseason.
Baugh, as a defender, had five assists on throw-ins from the sideline last year. He said he’s happy with the changes.
“The field is wider,” said Baugh. “But I can still throw it into the box. We are very happy with the new field and anxious to begin playing on it.”
The most significant loss from last year’s team was two-time All-PacWest goalkeeper Bradley Trella, who was a leader in many NCAA defensive categories. Trella saw his star power rise in 2015 when he did not allow a score over seven matches and 796 minutes.
“Brad is a great goalie,” said Broadhead. “We were fortunate to retain him as an assistant coach. He has been working with our current keepers and they will benefit from his expertise.”
The goalkeeper with the most returning experience is Zac Nielson. He has an edge over the others at the starting position. Eddie Ortiz and AJ Snell are competing for the backup role. Incoming freshman Levi Lord has also impressed the coaching staff.
Baugh is the heart of the Dixie State defense. He has started all three years and is one of the reasons that Dixie State has gone from worst to first in a short time. He was the PacWest defender of the year in 2016 and has earned this year’s preseason honors as well. His unique ability to throw into the opponent’s box has also changed opponents’ strategies of just kicking the ball out of bounds to prevent the corner kick. Lastly, he has become a coach on the field for the defensive line.
Also returning defensively is All-PacWest first teamer Angel Estrada. Only a freshman last year, Estrada amazed the crowd and stunned opponents with his deft control of the ball.
“Estrada will still be primarily a defensive player,” said Broadhead. “But with his offensive capabilities, you will see him on the attack as well.”
Kenny Barajas also returns and has the edge at the other starting position. Others that will see playing time include Noah Hill, who has returned from an LDS mission, Ascari Robles, Gustavo Ortega, Treydin Winward and Cody Oliver. Freshman Idris Alabi has also impressed Broadhead and may see more time as the season progresses.
Alexis Beiza will head the midfield. The senior has the distinction of being the shortest (5-foot-4) on the team. But his speed in transition and crisp passing has made him a key cog in both the defense and attack. Also returning at midfield is All-PacWest performer Dom Damato and redshirt freshman Mitch Wilkinson from Dixie High School. Two forwards that could also play wide midfield are Ather Dawood and Blake Damato.
Two others that could see action at midfield are sophomores Enrique Bucio and Zach Beckman.
Up front return three all-PacWest performers. The Medina brothers, Gabby and Moises, will team with the adopted third Medina brother, Christian Hall.
“There is such a discrepancy in appearance,” said Broadhead. “Hall is lanky, thin and tall (6-4), while the Medinas are shorter, compact, with muscular builds. But Moises and Gabby have said that Hall is officially part of the family because he plays soccer like a Medina.”
Other players who will play significant roles on the attack are Dawood and Blake Damato as well as Jandir Porta and Sean Jenne. All saw significant action last year.
One name notably absent is attacker Frankie Mallek. He was the speedy counterattack option in 2015 when Pittman installed his impenetrable defense.
“Last year, Frankie got hurt and had to take a redshirt,” said Broadhead. “We were looking forward to his return this year because with his speed he is a dangerous weapon. Unfortunately, he suffered another injury that will likely sideline him this year. Hopefully he can get another medical redshirt so he does not lose eligibility.”
Dixie State will begin the year with four straight matches on the road, beginning with Northwest Nazarene at the neutral site of Salt Lake City. The first home match coincides with the beginning of conference play with a match against Chaminade on Sept. 21.
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