Resurgent Rebels thriving in men’s soccer

When former UNLV men’s soccer star Rich Ryerson took over the program four years ago, it was on the brink of folding because of budgetary concerns.

Thanks in large part to Ryerson’s efforts as a fundraiser and coach, the program has not only survived but has begun to thrive.

After three straight losing seasons, the resurgent Rebels are off to an impressive 5-1-1 start this year that earned them a spot in the national rankings (No. 23) for the first time in 22 years.

“I wasn’t thinking rankings when we started the season. This all came kind of quick,” said Ryerson, a four-year starting defender for UNLV from 1983 to 1986. “I was thinking we want to contend for our conference championship so we could qualify for the NCAA Tournament. That’s one big goal we have.”

UNLV, which was picked in a preseason poll to place second in the Western Athletic Conference, hasn’t qualified for the NCAA tourney since 1987, the year after Ryerson finished his collegiate career — during which he helped lead the Rebels to a school-best 18-2-2 record, a No. 4 national ranking, three conference titles and three NCAA Tournament appearances.

“Back when he was here, he had all the success. I wanted to do the same thing,” senior captain Sal Bernal, a Clark High School product, said. “He has helped me develop as a better player. This (season) is a way to say thank you for all he’s done for us. For all the money he raised for the program that almost got canceled.

“It’s not just about winning but giving back to him. To try to give him that championship.”

Poised to become the first UNLV player to earn first-team all-conference honors four straight years, Bernal has been a big key to the squad’s success.

One of the nation’s leading scorers with six goals and an assist, the 5-foot-7-inch midfielder netted the only goal of the game in the Rebels’ 1-0 upset win over No. 14 Maryland-Baltimore County and had a hat trick and assisted on the winning goal in a 4-3 win at Bradley.

“He’s just had a blazing start. He’s got the ability to maybe play at the next level with the pros,” Ryerson said of Bernal, one of his first recruits. “He’s got amazing speed and quickness in his first couple steps. He’s very competitive. He’s not a big guy, but he gets his head in there for goals. He’s a very dynamic player.”

While Bernal, whose sister Susie plays for the UNLV women’s team, has supplied plenty of offense, the Rebels defense has been downright dominant for much of the year.

After allowing four goals in its first two games, UNLV recorded four straight shutouts in its longest such streak since 1985 before falling 4-2 at Gonzaga on Saturday in a game it played most of the way with only 10 players.

“We have the best defense in the nation right now,” Bernal said before Saturday’s loss.

The Rebels erased a 2-0 second-half deficit to the Zags without defender Connor Coletti, who received a red card for a foul in the first half, before allowing the decisive goal in the 68th minute. Gonzaga added an insurance goal in the final minute.

“It was an outstanding second-half effort to tie the game at 2-2 with 10 players,” Ryerson said. “We just couldn’t finish the game out with the disadvantage.”

Senior captain Kyle Mellies scored the winning goal against Bradley and netted the tying goal against the Zags. One of four returning all-conference players — along with senior goalie and captain Ryan Harding and junior midfielder Rodrigo Fuentes — the Silverado product anchors UNLV’s defense.

“He’s very athletic and very strong defending in the air and also on the ground,” Ryerson said. “He’s a defensive stalwart for us and has attacking strength as well. He’s a huge threat for us in set pieces and when we get into the other team’s goal box, Kyle can find goals for us.”

Mellies is one of 15 players from Nevada on the Rebels, who also are led by locals Julian Portugal (Palo Verde), Corey Ackley (Cimarron-Memorial) and Danny Musovski (Liberty) and Northern Nevada products Kevin Partida (Sparks) and Irvin Somera (Reno).

“If we were going to build a team for the community, we wanted to pick players from the community,” Ryerson said.

UNLV hopes the community will come out to support the squad in a showdown against No. 6 UC Irvine at 7 p.m. Friday at Peter Johann Memorial Field.

The Rebels also will host UC Riverside at 1 p.m. Sunday.

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354.

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