Not since the departure of current MLS forward Joseph Ngwenya in 2003 has the Coastal Carolina men’s soccer team dreamt of a deep postseason run.
But this year’s edition is eerily similar. Led by the nation’s leading goal scorer Ashton Bennett (21 goals), the unheralded Big South program carries a 17-2-0 record into the semifinals of the conference tournament and is envisioning big things in the postseason.
However, after five seniors departed from last year’s team, success coming so soon wasn’t quite what head coach Shaun Docking quite expected.
“It’s not been a surprise – I think the surprise is how early it’s come,” he told MLSsoccer.com over the phone. “I was expecting us to be better maybe next year, or the year after to continue to build the program back again.”
Back in 2003, led by Ngwenya’s goal scoring-exploits, Coastal Carolina compiled a 20-3-0 record, losing in the round of 16 of that year’s tournament. The goal this year is to match, or even top that achievement.
Success hasn’t come easy for the Chanticleers. Docking had to reload and shuffle pieces around after the losing his experienced seniors. He brought in Bennett, a junior from Cincinnati State Technical College, and has also seen a pair of sophomores, Pedro Ribiero and Justin Portillo, set the tone going forward.
“They make us tick offensively,” Docking explained. “They love combining with each other and I think a lot of Ashton’s goals have come from those two guys in terms of maintaining possession and looking for the great opportunities for Ashton.”
After an opening season loss against Charlotte – where Bennett, who hails from Jamaica, joined up with the team only the day before after sorting visa issues – Coastal Carolina kickstarted their season in dramatic fashion.
Playing in a tournament in Richmond, Va., the Chanticleers blew out Richmond 10-1, and from there, went on to win 15 of their next 16 games, including a 2-0 win in the Big South tournament quarterfinals against UNC Ashville on Thursday.
But even in the face of the success this year, Docking’s goal has been more than just winning in 2011: He wants to consistently build up a program where years like this one and the 2003 campaign are more the norm.
“We’re building for the future and trying to improve the program more than where it is now,” he said. “I think, along the way, if we can get the success that we’ve had and keep the success that we’ve been having, it’s a really good bonus. We know what the program is capable of and I think we want to set that standard and expectation for being a Top 10 nationally ranked program again.”
While the goals down the road are clear, the task at hand is focused on getting as far as they can in 2011. Even with their solid record, if the team slips up in the conference tournament, there are no guarantees they’d make the NCAA tournament – though it seems likely.
Regardless, the Chanticleers understand the do-or-die mentality of this stage of the season is crucial in order to eclipse the achievements of that 2003 team.
“We’ve entered a new phase of the season now and it’s a one-game season in the Big South tournament,” Docking said. “And if we can get to the NCAA Tournament, it’s the same thing. We’re just going to take it one game at a time – the next game is the most important game of the year, and I think we’ve got to approach it that way.”
Travis Clark covers D.C. United, college and youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com. You can follow him on Twitter @travismclark.