By NICK MENDOLA
Niagara Gazette — Want to anger a group of ambitious young champions?
Tell them they won't do it again.
The Niagara men's soccer team went went 13-2-4 last year, winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament and advancing to its first ever NCAA Tournament. Yet when the MAAC released its preseason coaches poll, Niagara wasn't atop the list.
Nor second. Nor third. The Purple Eagles were in fourth place, a slight they are hoping to avenge beginning with Friday's home opener against Vermont (7 p.m., Niagara Field).
"This year we're posted as underdogs again, so we want to prove that last year wasn't a fluke and not only win the MAAC but advance in the tournament and make an impression on the national stage," said defender and captain Nick Garcia.
There were offseason changes at Monteagle Ridge, though not enough to truly challenge a title team. All-conference goalkeeper Brett Petricek and midfielder Rene de Zorzi have moved from the playing field to the coaching staff, where they'll be assisting a first-year head coach. Eric Barnes is taking over for his old boss, Chase Brooks, who flew the Niagara nest for the same job at Duquesne.
But Niagara also brings back all-conference forward Callum Wilmott and the 2013 Preseason Player of the Year in Roberto Fernandez-Andersson. The big Swede, born in Spain, joins Garcia in the back.
"He reads the game well back from the back but he's also really composed on the ball," Barnes said of Fernandez-Andersson, "So we can put him under pressure as our last defender and he's still able to play out of it every time."
Garcia, making the move from right back to center back, is excited to pair up with Fernandez-Andersson in 2013.
"It's good to have a player you know is going to hold onto the ball and every time I make a mistake I know he's going to be there to clean it up for me," Garcia said.
With a strong group of defenders and loads of incoming talent -- Barnes brought 14 new players to campus -- the Purple Eagles have booked a challenging non-conference schedule to help them prepare for the MAAC gauntlet. They'll face respected programs like Cornell, San Diego State and Virginia Commonwealth.
"After winning last year in the MAAC, expectations are really high," Fernandez-Andersson said. "They should be really high. After winning the MAAC, we should aim for winning more games after the Final."
Which makes the fourth-place prediction, as meaningless as predictions may be, even more odd.
"In years past, whatever team won was still ranked first the next year," Garcia said, whose conference added Monmouth and Quinnipiac in the offseason. "We still have a good core of players and we're bringing some really quality players this year so I don't see any reason why we can't go out there and win it again."
The motivation comes easy for the Purple Eagles, especially for head coach Barnes. A top young coach, Barnes gets to the first chair for the first time and is joined as an assistant by former Missouri-Kansas City captain Miguel Rodriquez.
"Eric's approach is definitely a little different," Garcia said. "I kinda like it a lot more. We focus a lot more on playing, kinda bonding as a team and learning how each other plays so we can work off each other in a game."
Barnes expects his crop to do the little things right, but also believes he has more attacking flair and firepower than the team had in its 2012 title-winning season.
"Scoring goals shouldn't be an issue though I don't want to jinx myself on that one," Barnes said, later adding that, "Everyone's come together fine. It's a big family. We're where we were hoping to be at this point in the season."
When the ball moves forward against Vermont tonight, Barnes charges have not just the taste of last year's glory in their mouths but the opportunity to take the next step for their program. The growing conference is gaining respect and the hope is that soon there will be room for multiple MAAC teams in the Big Dance, more than just the team that hoists the tourney trophy.
"The future of the program is to be consistently in the NCAA Tournament," Barnes said. "With Monmouth and Quinnipiac coming in our conference, it gives us a much better chance of getting an at-large bid in addition to the automatic bid."