WILLIAMSBURG — Cautious optimism best describes William and Mary junior forward William Eskay’s men’s soccer season outlook.
The Tribe (7-8-2 overall) finished tied for the bottom-three spots in the CAA standings last season, with Northeastern and Drexel, but returns 21 of 24 players. One of the subtractions is William’s brother, Jackson, a member of the United Soccer League side, Richmond Kickers.
Last year marked just the third losing season in the past nine under William and Mary coach Chris Norris, and there were bright spots for the Tribe, including a draw at No. 4 North Carolina and win over No. 10 Elon.
“By the end of the season, whenever that may be,” forward Eskay said, “if we’re the best versions of ourselves, I think we will consider that a good season.”
Eskay (seven goals, four assists) was one of four William and Mary players to garner preseason All-CAA distinction along with sophomores Ryder Bell (seven goals, three assists), Antonio Bustamante (five goals, assist) and Marcel Berry (three goals, four assists).
That talented group of second-year players is reason alone for the Tribe to be excited about 2016.
They were credited for bringing a breath of fresh air to the lineup a season ago. Back are Berry, Bell, Bustamante, defender Remi Frost and midfielder John Fuquene.
Midfielders Berry and Bustamante joined Eskay on the preseason All-CAA squad, and Bell was honorable mention after tying for the team lead in goals last year with Eskay.
Bell also had a big summer, helping AFC Cleveland to a National Premier Soccer League championship.
Berry, a Charlottesville product, was co-CAA Rookie of the Year last season and saw a lot of time at outside back. He anticipates playing forward more this season, joining an attack force that will be expected to have a penchant for finding the net.
“Any of those guys returning in the attacking positions could have really big seasons,” Norris said.
“That sophomore group will definitely be key,” Eskay said. “… That class was just kind of crazy good.”
They aren’t likely to make the same impact as last year’s freshmen, but there are some new players to keep an eye on.
Pennsylvania’s Tanner Shane joined the Tribe as a defender and was named by Norris as one of the freshmen likely to contribute along with Stafford’s Ricardo Acosta, who is competing for time at right back, and midfielder Julian Ngoh of Fauquier County.
Hristo Bustamante is a George Mason transfer and vying for time at left back and redshirt junior Phil Breno is competing for the starting goalkeeper spot, which redshirt junior Mac Phillips owned most of last season.
Freshman Reeves Trott should also factor in somewhere in the middle of the field after helping lead Lafayette High to the Group 4A semifinals each of the past two seasons.
At 6-3, Trott’s versatility could put him at forward, center midfield or central defense as it did in high school and with Legacy 76 in NPSL play.
Trott tallied a goal against George Mason in an exhibition Saturday.
“I think, right now, based on the demands of those positions, up front suits him the most,” Norris said.
The other Lafayette product is redshirt junior Alfonso Speed, who had a strong summer with Legacy 76 before going down with an injury. He’ll play right back or center back.
Not conceding goals is one of Norris’ greatest concerns ahead of Friday’s regular season opener, 7 p.m. at home against George Washington.
“It’s something that we had some issues with last year,” Norris said. “We definitely think we are much closer to being able to do that than we were at this point last year or at any point last year. But we won’t really know until we play our first game.”
Senior Reilly Maw is another one of those players who can play all over the park, and shifted positions seamlessly with Legacy 76. Norris will ask the 6-foot Tabb High graduate him to drop back to an outside back spot, where his speed can still be showcased.
Maw joins Bell, Berry, Bustamante, Eskay, and redshirt junior central midfielder Riley Spain as the penciled-in starters. That leaves five spots up for grabs.
William and Mary doesn’t just have top-tier talent on the ledger; the Tribe has it coming to Williamsburg with a challenging slate of home games including contests against three preseason top-25 teams: No. 8 North Carolina, No. 10 Georgetown and No. 21 Coastal Carolina.
The non-conference NCAA participants from last year on the Tribe’s schedule are Coastal Carolina (home, Aug. 29), Georgetown (home, Sept. 13), North Carolina (home, Sept. 20), and Virginia (away Oct. 18). The pair of CAA foes that advanced to the NCAAs are reigning league champion Hofstra (away, Oct. 8) and Elon (away, Oct. 12).
“It’s fun,” Berry said. “It’s nice to play big teams at home, get a big crowd going. It should be exciting. It should be an exciting season.”
“Hopefully it’s exciting and not just on campus,” Norris said, “but in the general community.”