The Atlantic 10 is a conference on the rise.
There’s no better way to recognize its ascension than last year’s national tournament, where UNC Charlotte made a run to the title game.
“It is very competitive,” Fordham head coach Jim McElderry told TopDrawerSoccer.com of the A-10. “I think some of the top end teams have established themselves in their region whatever region their in, to be successful. Whether it’s beating local teams that are good teams or being able to play out of region.”
Added Xavier head coach Andy Fleming: “I think it’s a little under the radar and I think our top three or four teams are as good as anybody’s.”
That theory will be put to the test in 2012, as a couple of the recently successful programs deal with significant change at the top. Charlotte saw its head coach Jeremy Gunn take the top job at Stanford, with Associate head coach Kevin Langan named in his stead.
Meanwhile, George Washington, which won the regular season Atlantic 10 title, saw longtime coach George Lidster retire after 24 years in charge. Craig Jones, who had been the team’s top assistant for the last three years, was named as Lidster’s replacement and will look to return the Colonials to the top of the standings.
Most other teams, like Fordham, aren’t dealing with a coaching change, but are working hard in the spring to replace a strong departing senior class. Head coaches recognize that departing players impact a team off the field almost as much as some do on the field.
At Fordham, this is a particular issue being addressed.
“I think one of the biggest areas [we’re working on] is the leadership of our group,” McElderry said. “When you have such a big group of seniors and we had a great group of guys graduate and as I said not all of those were major contributors on the field. But off the field and the culture of our team that group of seniors is very important.”
While Fordham has to cope with the loss of eleven seniors, including its starting goalkeeper in Ryan Meara, a program like Xavier – which won the conference tournament in 2011 – is looking to build on a successful year and push the team to a new plateau.
“We’re trying to maintain it a little bit here and try to go to another level, push past that first round and even compete for an at-large bid down the road,” Fleming said. “But we have a veteran group and we’re trying to maintain things rather than re-inventing ourselves.”
With that in mind, Fleming has set up an extremely demanding spring schedule, including games against Akron and Notre Dame to ensure the team doesn’t get complacent during this time of year.
But the bulk of the attention next fall in the conference is certain to fall on the shoulders of UNC Charlotte. Despite the coaching change, and the loss of talent like Charles Rodriguez and Evan James, the 49ers bring back leading scorer Giuseppe Gentille and new head coach Kevin Langan probably won’t suffer too significant of a drop-off.
And then there’s the perennial power St. Louis, aiming to return to contention with a strong recruiting class, which opened its spring schedule last weekend with a 3-2 loss against Indiana, not to mention like other rising programs such as Temple or La Salle.
Regardless of what takes place this spring, there’s little question that the somewhat unheralded Atlantic 10 is only going to continue to get better.
“I think the top teams in our conference have shown very well,” McElderry said. “Some of the schools are putting more resources into soccer which eventually is what you need to compete.”
Atlantic 10 Players to Watch
Nat Bekoe, Fordham: As his squad bids farewell to an influential senior class, players like Bekoe are going to have to step up not just on, but also off the field. He’s already played more than 30 games in two seasons at Fordham, and in order for his side to continue recent success, he’ll need to find ways to dictate the game.
Giuseppe Gentille, UNC Charlotte: The freshman defied the odds to knock in double-digit goals as the 49ers made their run to the NCAA Final. Like all teams, Charlotte faces a significant talent drain, and what Gentille is capable of for an encore is going to factor in how 2012 plays out.
Nick Hagglund, Xavier: An outstanding center back for the burgeoning program in Ohio, Hagglund picked up a First Team All-Conference award and must improve on that if the Musketeers can take that next step forward.
Travis Clark is a staff reporter at TopDrawerSoccer.com. Follow him on or send him an email.