BIGEAST.org spoke with Connecticut head coach Ray Reid and St. John’s head coach Dave Masur. St. John’s was selected as the BIG EAST Red Division favorite, while Connecticut was chosen to win the BIG EAST Blue Division in the 2012 BIG EAST Preseason Men’s Soccer Coaches’ Poll.
St. John’s was chosen as the preseason favorite in its division after winning the BIG EAST Championship title last year. St. John’s defeated Connecticut 1-0 in the championship final at Red Bull Arena. The squad advanced to earn the No. 9 seed in the NCAA Championship, earning a bye to the second round, where the Red Storm hosted Brown. St. John’s will be led by Preseason All-Conference selections Tim Parker and Jack Bennett. Bennett was the Offensive MVP of the BIG EAST Championship last season.
In the Blue Division, the Huskies are the preseason favorite after they earned the No. 3 seed in the NCAA Championship and finished 2011 with a 19-3-3 overall record. UConn had a first-round bye and defeated Monmouth and James Madison at home before tying Charlotte in Storrs and falling in 4-2 in penalty kicks. The Huskies reached the NCAA quarterfinals for the 11th time in program history and the first time since 2007. The squad enters the 2012 season with a streak of 25 games at home without a loss. The Huskies will be led by Andre Blake, the first freshman to win a major award, as he took home BIG EAST Goalkeeper of the Year last season. UConn will also have the services of Mamdou Diouf, chosen unanimously to the Preseason All-Conference team.
You were selected to finish the 2012 season first. How does a vote of confidence like that from the league’s head coaches affect your outlook for the season?
Masur: I think the preseason poll is exciting for our fans as they gear up for the season, but it doesn’t change our outlook on the season. We know that championships are decided on the field and we are ready to embark on what will be another tough schedule. I think one of the things that the preseason poll did emphasize was the depth of the conference as six teams received first place votes.
Reid: It doesn’t affect my outlook at all. My concern is getting my team ready for the first match. I need to concentrate on getting my team prepared.
How do you feel that you can build on the momentum of last season, after both teams competed in the BIG EAST Championship title game and earned byes to the NCAA Championship second round?
Masur: Every season is very different and takes on its own storylines, so I don’t think necessarily that there is any momentum to build on from last season. However, my hope would be that our returning players gained the knowledge of what it takes to develop and get better throughout a challenging regular season schedule to prepare for a successful run in the postseason.
Reid: Every year is a new year. Last year’s team had a great run. We start fresh with a new group this year. Our team will be defined by whatever we can get done this fall.
What do you feel your biggest strengths will be? Your biggest challenges?
Masur: We think that our team has a good deal of versatility, but the challenge will be consistency. We have a lot of new players this season who haven’t been through the rigors of a grueling Division I schedule. The difficulty will be getting the team to consistently perform at a level that will allow us to meet our goals.
Reid: Our biggest strength is we have a great group of young men. Our biggest challenge is this is a very difficult demanding league and every match is a battle.
Dave, can you talk a little bit about the depth of the Red Division.
Masur: Obviously, we feel that the BIG EAST as a whole is one of the top conferences in the country and both divisions are very deep. We sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament last year, including four from the Red and three from the Blue. Speaking specifically about the Red Division, though, you have a pair of programs that reached the elite eight last season in Louisville and USF as well as a Rutgers squad that knocked off the No. 4 national seed to reach the Round of 16. DePaul plays an exciting possession brand of soccer that is difficult to interrupt, while Syracuse has put together some great recruiting classes and is poised for a breakout season. Cincinnati always puts a strong team on the field- they’ve beaten us in each of the past two seasons, and Villanova has some great weapons and made a run to the BIG EAST semifinals last season.
Ray, can you speak a little bit about the depth of the Blue Division.
Reid: The Blue Division is loaded. Last year’s winner, Marquette, returns a very seasoned team who knows how to win. Notre Dame is a top-10 team year in and year out and a very difficult opponent. Georgetown may be the best side in the division. They have depth, are well-coached and know how to compete. Providence has been as successful as anyone on our side of the division in the past five years. Seton Hall defeated us last year and under new head coach Gerson Echeverry will be a very tough opponent. Finally Pittsburgh has made great progress the last two years and we are expecting a breakout year from them.
Dave, what are your expectations for Tim Parker and Jack Bennett, both BIG EAST Preseason All-Conference selections?
Most importantly, we expect Tim and Jack to lead by example both in practice and in games. We expect them to play with a high level of intensity and focus, but to stay within their roles and not try to do too much.
Ray, what are your expectations for Andre Blake, who was the unanimous selection for BIG EAST Preseason Goalkeeper of the Year, and Mamadou Diouf, the BIG EAST Preseason Offensive Player of the Year?
Our expectation for both of them is quite simple- they are a year older and a year more experienced. We expect them to continue to grow, develop and improve. We know the commitment that the both of them have made in the last 10 months and hopefully it will pay off for both of them.