Gator men's soccer season kicks off on Monday

The Gator men's soccer team kicks off its season next week, hoping to build on the experience of veteran players and the strong promise of new recruits to compete in its challenging league.

The team is considered a veteran squad -- of 26 players, 18 are returning. But the new members, including four freshmen and four junior college transfers, have shown the potential to develop into "premier" players, said Head Coach Joe Hunter.

A photo of the Gator men’s soccer team practicing.

The Gator men’s soccer team practices in anticipation of the start of the season next week.

 "We've got a good mix of transfers and a strong sophomore class," said Hunter.  "I really like our freshmen. They’re going to get a significant amount of minutes on the field."

"We have a couple of really good freshmen," seconded senior accounting major and defender Sasha Chalak.

Among them is Guillermo Castro, who was named goalkeeper of the year in his high school league and is a member of the El Salvador National Team of players under 17 years old. Others include midfielder and forward Jared Magaoay, defender Riley Clark and midfielder Sam Merritt, who in high school earned multiple all-star and MVP titles.

For Hunter, who has been coaching at SF State for 23 years, recruiting is a year-round job, and he is happy with the team he and assistant coach Kelly Coffey have assembled. In the pre-season, "you finally get to see the fruits of your labor," he said.

"So far the team chemistry is really high and everyone looks out for each other," said Merritt.

The Gators play two games locally to start off the season, against Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont on Sept. 3 and against Academy of Art University at Kezar Stadium on Sept. 5. On Sept. 21, they host Cal State San Bernardino for their first home game at Cox Stadium.

"If we play a good first couple of games, it should be a big confidence booster," said Edgar Villagrana, a senior accounting major.

Although the first two weeks of the season will be spent on the road, the team is looking forward to playing at the storied Kezar Stadium. With a 17-game season in an eight-week time span, plenty of mental and physical toughness is required as players juggle travel, team-building events, injuries and a full course load, said Hunter. But the challenges build team chemistry, and the Gators put a high emphasis on classroom achievement -- the team's average GPA is 3.0.

A photo of the Gator Men’s soccer team practicing.

Goalkeeper Guillermo Castro in a scrimmage game.

Since pre-season practices started Aug. 13, the team has been working on defensive drills and staging scrimmages.

"We're really trying to work together to keep possessions and build our defense," said Magaoay.

Last year, the Gators finished tenth out of 12 in the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA), one of the most competitive soccer leagues in the NCAA Division II.

"The CCAA has been the premier conference for a while now," said Hunter. "The Far West region is no doubt the toughest. We've got quite a road to hoe, but the guys love the competition."

With a promising team that balances experience with talent, Hunter is optimistic for the start of the season.

"We're really looking forward to it," he said.

Click to view the 2012 men’s soccer schedule .

-- Philip Riley