Without setting foot on the field, the UNLV men’s soccer team already has won its most significant battle of the season.
Technically, there shouldn’t be a team. No coaches, no players, no practice field.
When the university hinted last fall that the program would be dissolved for financial reasons, coach Rich Ryerson knew it would take a miracle to save men’s soccer at UNLV.
He got one, in the form of an $850,000 donation by the Engelstad Family Foundation in July. The foundation donated $250,000 to cover this season’s expenses, with the remainder of the money to be used over the following four years.
“Luckily, we had the right people band together,” said Ryerson, who will begin his second year at the helm Saturday with a game at Cal Poly. “There was a very real possibility that the program was going to be eliminated. It almost took a full year to come to fruition, but we’re very blessed.”
The past several months have been emotional for the coach, who scrambled to save the program while convincing 10 of his 23 players not to flee to other schools.
“The 10 players who did stay are extremely loyal to myself, the program and the university,” Ryerson said. “They risked everything, and it was fortunate for me that they were all top players.”
Ryerson, who played as a midfielder/defender for UNLV from 1983 through 1986, said the battle to save his program was personal. He and his players raised $60,000 before receiving the July donation.
“After being such an integral part of my life, there was no way I was going to let this program go away,” said Ryerson, who helped lead the Rebels to three NCAA Tournament appearances as a player. “Before my freshman season, we all helped lay the sod at Peter Johann Memorial Field.”
With his program saved, Ryerson finally has turned his attention to the season at hand. Considering all their off-field woes, the Rebels received a show of respect when the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation coaches selected UNLV to finish fifth in their annual preseason poll.
“I’m pleased,” said Ryerson, who returns eight starters and six of last year’s top seven scorers. “But I still feel that puts us in an underdog position. I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people this year, not only in conference but at the national level.”
The team’s on-field leader will be forward Nick Marshall, a junior from Tucson, Ariz. As a sophomore, Marshall was named to the first all-conference team after logging five goals and two assists in 19 starts.
Junior Jonny Espinoza (four goals, two assists) should lead the midfield, and Chaparral High product Mike Mota, a junior, will pace the defense. Ryerson also returns senior goalkeeper Simon Cook and sophomore goalkeeper Ryan Harding.
Though the Rebels lost top scorer Stephen Sifuentes to graduation in the spring, Ryerson still likes his team’s chances for success.
“We want to finish in the top six so we can make the playoffs,” Ryerson said. “My goal, really, is to win the conference.”
The Rebels will play their home opener when they host San Francisco in the Nike Invitational on Sept. 9.