RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. —Two weeks in advance of the start of the 2017 Great American Conference Men’s Soccer season, the league’s head coaches installed reigning regular-season champion Oklahoma Baptist as the preseason favorite, the conference office announced on Thursday.
The Bison posted a 14-9-2 record in 2016 – including 5-1 in league play – after a 6-13 mark in 2015. They must replace the two-time GAC Player of the Year, Vicente Castillo, but return Thiago Dos Santos, who led the conference in goals and points as a freshman. They also return 2016 GAC Freshman of the Year, Michael Stewart, as well as four juniors who earned All-GAC honors as sophomores in First-Team picks Jesus Andrade, Jonathan Martinez and David Estrada plus Second-Team forward Luis Romero. Romero and Martinez ranked third and fourth in the league in scoring while Andrade and Estrada both scored D2CCA All-Region honors.
Harding, the 2016 GAC Tournament champions, picked up a first-place vote and tied Ouachita for second in the poll. Like Oklahoma Baptist, Harding also experienced a significant win improvement as the Bisons went 14-6 under first-year head coach Jon Ireland, after producing a 4-12-2 record in 2015. The Bisons, who did not feature a single First-Team All-GAC selection, return four of their top five scorers in Second-Team performers Matheus Ribeiro, Jason Diaz and Christian Ramos as well as Jeremy Nwonumah, the GAC Tournament MVP.
The Tigers bring back a total of five 2016 All-GAC performers this season. Tyler Mouton, the GAC Defender of the Year and an Honorable Mention All-American, and Nelson Pacheco, the two-time GAC Goalkeeper of the Year, both return for their senior seasons. The Ouachita defense led the conference in goals allowed and goals-against average. A third senior, forward Tinashe Chigede, has garnered All-Region acclaim in both 2015 and 2016. Ouachita also features a pair of sophomores – Hector Duron and Noa Cuellar that earned All-GAC honors as freshmen.
Southern Nazarene rounded out the poll. Colton Hadlock, the GAC’s Second-Team goalkeeper, has led the conference, and ranked in the top five in the nation, in saves in each of the last two seasons.
The 2017 season begins on Thursday, August 31 with three schools – Harding, Ouachita and Southern Nazarene – all opening at home. Oklahoma Baptist debuts one week later.