Corey Brueggeman is issuing a challenge.
The second-year Manchester University head coach hopes and feels his 2017 team will accept it. It's centered around a robust non-league slate that features the likes of NCAA Division III powers DePauw University, Ohio Northern University and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to prepare for what is always a daunting roster in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference.
Planned results have the Spartans doing something special.
"We've got the group (to do this)," Brueggeman said. "Almost all of the contributors from a pretty solid 2016 season are back and while we did lose our captains and some key players due to graduation, a strong core of experience and leadership is in front of us. I am excited (about the possibilities).
I wanted to see where this program was at," he added in discussing the schedule strengthening. "We had an easier schedule to start off last year, and, at times, (assistant coach) Isaac (Beal) and I didn't feel like we were playing up to the level of our competition especially in conference play. This increased schedule will aid in the process. We feel like it will get us headed in the right direction."
Looking around the field, Brueggeman had the following thoughts …
Defensively, senior Brady Forman (Hastings, Mich.) and sophomore Justin Winterboer (Indianapolis, Ind.) will battle it out in net along with a newcomers group filled with potential, according to Brueggeman. Forman has started all but one of the 46 career matches he has played in, while Winterboer saw playing time during his freshman campaign. In front of them is a stout backfield led by the sophomore tandem of Matt Roop (West Lafayette, Ind.) and Brandon Renninger (Fort Wayne, Ind.). Renninger was an honorable mention all-Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference selection as a freshman while Roop dodged the injury bug to the tune of nine starts in 10 matches played. They will be joined by the likes of sophomores Josh Jordan (Zionsville, Ind.) and Nash Walker (West Lafayette, Ind.) and junior Alex Sanders (Kouts, Ind.) among others.
"Brandon and Matt will lead (this group)," Brueggeman stated. "They both have a year under their belt in the center back slots. Right and left back spots will be up for grabs with Alex, Josh and Nash having prior experience. It will be great to have Nash back for a full season after he was out with injuries last fall, so we are excited to see him healthy. The goalkeeping position is strong, as I expect an interesting preseason camp battle to see who has the early starting duties.
This is much like the defense we had last year," he added. "They have another year of experience and maturity and should be better for it. We have a goal of seeing at least 10 clean sheets this season. I think we can reach it."
The offense has just as many weapons. Junior Nate Johnson (Portage, Ind.) who has 34 starts in his 36 career matches played guides the midfield. He has shown the ability to distribute and score the ball over his previous two seasons. Joining him are the sophomore tandem of Alex Baker and Max Baker (Fort Wayne, Ind.) and juniors Josh McCoy (LaPorte, Ind.), Samuel Tetteh-Quarshie (Accra, Ghana), Ben Niederhelman (Ross Ohio) and Digby Strogen (Clermont, Calif.).
"There's so many options," Brueggeman noted. "It all begins with Nate. He had a tremendous redebut of sorts last season after sitting out the previous year. He is a good exemplary leader.
Alex and Max have shown good signs in match play and last spring," he added. "Josh could be a difference maker, as his high school resume was amazing. He is just in his first year, but we feel he can add a lot. Ben and Samuel were the leaders in points and goals scored (in 2016) and can both play outside. We are beyond excited about them due to what they have produced. Digby is a jack-of-all-trades that can play anywhere. Whoever the rotation is, they will need to control the match by dictating the pace and tempo."
They will deliver the ball and be involved with what Brueggeman calls one of the program's most dangerous attacking sections "in some time." Senior Tod Oram (Crown Point, Ind.) and junior Drake DeWitt headline the position with sophomore Adrian Mulenga (Avon, Ind.) and fellow seniors Travis Richardson (Elizabethtown, Ind.) and Dustin Cunningham (LaGrange, Ind.) available along with a stellar first-year group.
"Our experience will be a big plus," Brueggeman said. "Tod and Drake understand where the program wants to go. Adrian is coming off a great freshman season where he was a workhorse up top, and Dustin and Travis are each returning from injury-riddled seasons. I will be interested to see how these players mesh with a very talented freshman class that has the ability to score goals.
The offense will be dictated by the opponent and match situation," he added. "Obviously, we want the fans to enjoy our style (of play). It comes down to what's the best option for us to get a win."
The challenge is there and Brueggeman will know if it is met successfully.
"We have to communicate," he pointed out. "Too many times last year, we didn't, and it hurt us. The guys who will be in the captain spots know what needs to happen to reach the goals we have set. With their work ethic and example, it should be a trickle-down effect."
Another challenge set. The 2017 Spartans stand ready to meet it.