Union men’s soccer ready to return to the top

Published 5:34 pm Thursday, August 23, 2018

BARBOURVILLE — The Union College men’s soccer team heads into the 2018 season ready to fight its way back to the top of the Appalachian Athletic Conference (AAC).

Union is coming off an 11-8-1 overall record and a 5-4 AAC mark. A journey that didn’t quite end how the Bulldogs wanted in the 2017 season, but they still finished as the runner-up in the conference tournament.

Head coach Jonathan Shaw hasn’t given up hope, as he reminds his 2018 team that this is a brand new season with lots of newcomers and a few veterans, and together the Bulldogs have the potential to go out and win another title.

“As always the end goal is to make it to nationals,” Shaw said. “It’s a season of potential, and we have goals for ourselves like to win conference, get back to the conference final for the fourth year in a row, and compete nationally.”

Union returns seven experienced players from a year ago, including four seniors that bring an enormous amount of talent to the pitch.

The four seniors hope to return the Bulldogs back to the top of the AAC and back to the NAIA National Championship Tournament. Of those seniors, Justin Wilkinson collected three assists and a goal in earning five points before ending his season early with an injury.

Along with Wilkinson, Union returns two strong defenders in Callum MacDonald and Craig Ellis, who each tallied a goal and an assist earning three points last season. Forward Edwin Garcia looks to continue his success scoring this season as he ended 2017 with three goals and an assist.

“We do have an experienced older team. Having the returners that we do and four seniors will be beneficial for us,” said Shaw. “It’s great to see the returners stepping up and raising their level because the level we brought in has been so high, so they’ve had to do that.

“Edwin Garcia is going to be very key moving forward. He has to stay lively, and that will be fantastic for us,” Shaw continues. “MacDonald is our only returning captain from last year, and he will be a big part of what we are going to do defensively. Wilkinson has just been a big part of the team building and bringing everyone together. Lastly, Craig hasn’t hit the heights he can hit, but this year is a big year for him. He’s always had injuries slowing him down, but hopefully, we can have an injury-free season to make it a fantastic senior year for not just Craig but for all our seniors. “

After losing 20 players, Shaw, along with his superb coaching staff, went to work recruiting and have brought in 23 freshman and transfers from across the spectrum.

“This team is probably the most individually talented team I’ve seen in my time at Union, but we have to come together as a team in order to be successful and achieve all our goals.” Shaw notes. “With so many new players that we have, it makes for a very competitive environment and pushes the guys to do their best.”

One of the only things standing in the Bulldogs way of winning the AAC regular-season and tournament championships and going far at nationals is the challenging slate full of strong competition.

The 2018 schedule looks a little bit different than previous years and will not be any easier for the Bulldogs. The squad will play 17 matches on the year with nine games played on their home turf.

Union will face just one team ranked in the NAIA Coaches’ Preseason Top 25 in AAC regular-season champion Reinhardt University, which came in ranked at No. 23. Along with Reinhardt, the Bulldogs will face three teams who received votes in the preseason poll, in non-conference foe Campbellsville University, reigning AAC Tournament champions Truett McConnell University, and longtime rival Bryan College.

“The schedule is good and competitive, even though we don’t face but one top-25 team,” Shaw said. “It’s going to be a tough schedule because some of the teams we got like Bethel, West Virginia Tech, Reinhardt, Truett McConnell, Bryan and Campbellsville are all very good teams even though they aren’t ranked in the top 25.”

Union breaks open the season with the annual Thomas Trammell Memorial Game. The Bulldogs face Asbury at 7 p.m. at Williamson Stadium at Burch/Nau field.

“The team has a lot of potential, an absolute ton of potential,” Shaw expressed. “We could easily be in the top 25 or receiving votes, but we need to gel and click more. With the number of new players, it’s usually hard to have instant success, but at Union we build success usually from a core that knows how the others played. These guys are still trying to figure each other out, if they get to know that then who knows where we could end up, but we’re going to go a very long way.”