Veterans, fresh recruits try to kick-start UNLV men’s soccer

When Mario Sanchez took over the UNLV men’s soccer team last season, he promised to rejuvenate a program that had been faltering for years.

He didn’t promise it wound happen overnight.

The Rebels struggled to a 1-15-2 record in Sanchez’s rookie season, but the coach insisted better days were on the way. With his 2007 team set to begin the season Friday at Pittsburgh, Sanchez hopes to prove those days are getting nearer.

“Last year doesn’t really mean anything,” said Sanchez, who added several new players in the offseason. “We showed we could play with almost anyone, and with all these new kids, we’re only looking forward. I think top three (in conference play) is very realistic.”

Nine of UNLV’s losses last season came by a single goal, but the Rebels’ 2-0 late-season victory over 21st-ranked Denver served as an encouraging sign to Sanchez.

“You just need to show improvement,” he said. “If you do the right things on a daily basis, the record will take care of itself.”

The Rebels’ roster looks capable of improving on last year’s 1-9 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation record. Veteran midfielders Lamar Neagle, Nicholas Paterson and Mason Trafford are hungry after last year’s struggles.

“We’re not going to try to force anything in terms of wins and losses,” said Trafford, a junior from Vancouver, British Columbia. “That’s what happened last year. We’re just going to try to do the right things, and the results will come.”

The veterans will have help. Several strong freshmen have been added, including 5-foot-8-inch Daniel Cruz, a highly recruited forward who played with the U.S. U-17 Men’s National Team over the summer.

Sanchez said he has seen enough progress to believe his team is ready to reach the next level.

“It does take three to four years (to turn a program around),” he said. “By the fourth year, my goal is to be somewhere in the top 25.”

The UNLV women’s team has many of the same goals, but third-year coach Kat Mertz won’t have to work around quite as many hurdles.

Mertz returns 10 starters from a team that won last year’s Mountain West Conference Tournament on the way to an NCAA Tournament appearance.

“You always want to aim to do better than last year,” said Mertz, whose squad hosts Cal State Fullerton in its season opener at 7 p.m. Friday at Peter Johann Memorial Field. “Our ultimate goal is to compete for the Mountain West Conference championship and get back into the NCAA Tournament.”

The season will not come without challenges. Though the Rebels stunned the league by winning last year’s conference tournament, they are coming off an otherwise disappointing 9-11-3 season. Tournament victories over 19th-ranked Brigham Young and 10th-ranked Utah saved an otherwise mediocre season.

Co-team captain Erika Jensen said the strong finish gives the team a successful blueprint to start this season.

“We’re feeding off that,” the senior midfielder said. “We didn’t have the type of season we wanted last year. But we’re used to being the underdog and we like to prove everyone wrong.”

That will require significant production from the veterans. First-team All-Mountain West defender Brie Kuhne is back, along with second-teamers Jensen and forward Armani Rice.

They will be joined by several promising newcomers, including Kelly Labor, a transfer from Regis. The sophomore forward is expected to help fill the void left by the graduation of standout forward/midfielder Tanya Roberts. The initial adjustment period could cost UNLV some games.

In the long run, however, Mertz thinks her team has a chance to earn its fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament.

“We’ve got a quality senior class and a lot of leadership,” she said.

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