Exhibition Week – vs. Fort Lewis, Air Force Denver
Monday: 7 p.m., Lobos vs. Fort Lewis – UNM Soccer Complex
Wednesday: 3:30 p.m., Lobos at Air Force
Saturday: 7 p.m., Lobos vs. Denver, UNM Soccer Complex
By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
The program called New Mexico Lobo men’s’ soccer rolls out its 2014 team this week and really nothing has changed for Jeremy Fishbein’s Lobos.
They enter the 2014 season with a target on their back, which is just fine for Fishbein and his Lobos. In 2014 they are what they have always been: a blue-collar team that puts team goals first and has no problem with other teams coming at Lobos hard. Because that’s what you are going to get back.
“You want to be the team with the target on its back,” said junior Ben McKendry. “I think we embrace it.
“We don’t take it as something that is going to weigh us down. We take it as something that will propel us forward. We’re a hard working group and we’re humble as well so we don’t let it (rankings) get to our head which is important.”
In many ways, Fishbein’s program has set a standard for New Mexico athletics. They are the only Lobo team to ever advance to a Final Four in a tournament format and they have done that twice. They are coming off their second trip to the College Cup and they enter the 2014 season ranked No. 5 in the nation. They were No. 11 in the 2013 preseason poll.
“For the program, it should be the norm,” said senior Mathew Gibbons of national rankings and targets on Lobo backs. “It’s a culture you get used to.”
The Lobos were the dominant culture in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation for a number of years (10 total titles) before jumping into Conference USA in 2013. It was a step up, but it was the same old Fishbein Lobos. They powered to the 2013 regular-season crown and charged through the NCAA bracket before losing to eventual national champion, Notre Dame, in the semis.
“They know what it took to get there,” said Gibbons of the returning Lobos. “We’ll try to do the same thing. It takes a lot of little things.”
Said Fishbein: “You don’t reference the Final Four, per se. You reference things that we did that led to success over the past three years.”
That means the Lobos will take to the practice field and the game fields with honest effort, team play, aggression and pride. They make it difficult for teams to beat them. That also is part of their tradition.
The Lobos went 14-6-2 overall in 2013 with a 7-1-1 mark in league play. They have been in the Sweet 16 or better for the past three years and the expectations that Lobos will make a similar charge in 2014 are fair. Fishbein’s Lobos are talented, experienced and they have depth.
“I don’t have concerns,” Fishbein said of approaching the 2014 season. “I think our questions and our problems are good problems in that there are a lot of quality players out there.”
Fishbein has six seniors, three juniors, six sophomores and 11 freshmen on his 26-man roster for 2014. He has nine players from New Mexico. Fish has a strong core of upperclassmen and one of his challenges will be in mixing in younger Lobos and not losing chemistry.
“It’s a confidence, but not an arrogant group,” said Fishbein. “They are ready and they are excited to get going. It’s a proud group. They know there is pressure that comes with success. We talk about it. We embrace it.”
Soccer can be a cruel game influenced by good fortune and bad fortune. The best team doesn’t always win. Fishbein attempts to place the best prepared team on the pitch and then tries to outwork and out execute the enemy. It’s a plan that usually works.
Fish’s Lobos have made 10 NCAA brackets in 12 seasons and he is tied for second in the nation in wins (142) since 2004. His Lobos played in the national champion game in 2005 – the only Lobo team to do that in a tourney format. Fishbein has made the Lobos a team other teams are hungry to beat.
“Obviously, lower-ranked teams come in here with nothing to lose. They play you hard,” said Gibbons.
Said Nick Miele: “At the end of the season, we want to be fighting for a national title. It’s not like we are going to focus strictly on the end result. You have to work your way up there. If you set a goal, you have to work towards that goal. It doesn’t just happen.”
A program usually can survive the loss of key players. The Lobos lost some quality from 2013 especially in defender Kyle Venter, keeper Michael Lisch and midfielders Michael Kafari and Michael Calderon, UNM’s leading scorer in 2013.
However, Fishbein returns his next four top scorers from 2013: James Rogers, Ben McKendry, Chris Wehan and Niko Hansen. “I think we are faster and quicker on the attack,” said Rogers.
The Lobos also picked up St. Francis (N.Y.) transfer Kevin Correa, who had 13 goals and six assists for the Terriers in 2013. Rogers and Hansen led UNM with seven goals apiece last year.
“He’s a goal scorer,” said Fishbein of Correa. “He’s an exciting player and people are going to love watching him. He’s going to put the ball in the net this year.”
The addition of Correa adds to an already potent UNM attack. The Lobos also are solid on defense with seniors Gibbons, Riley McGovern, Oniel Fisher and Miele on the back end in front of senior keeper Patrick Poblete, who is not a rookie in the net.
“The way I see it, as a defender, the program is built on defending,” said Gibbons. “I take a lot of pride in it personally. I know the coaches do.”
“We have a very veteran defense,” said Fishbein, who expects to play at least four seniors in his defensive backfield. “It starts with defending, but we are going to put balls in the net. It’s a lot of returning guys. I think it’s a pretty special group. It’s a pretty special senior class which has seen a lot of success.
“There is optimism and excitement, but also there is respect for our opponents. I don’t think we are going to get ahead of ourselves.”
Said McKendry: “There definitely is some fire in the belly to get back at it.”
The Lobos start the fires this week with three exhibition games then the season starts with a bang as No. 13 Akron comes to Albuquerque on August 29.