If last year was the start of a culture change for the Warwick Vets boys’ soccer team, then this year the ’Canes may start to really reap the benefits.
After three seasons in which Vets won just one total game, the ’Canes moved down to Division III last fall, started to believe and turned the corner. They won six games – good for the program’s first non-losing record since 2005 – won a preliminary round playoff game and played competitively against eventual champion Exeter/West Greenwich in the quarterfinals before being knocked out.
Only four players are gone off that squad, and the ’Canes are hopeful – if not confident – that last season was only the beginning.
“The kids got a little taste last year, a little quarterfinals,” Vets head coach Mike Kenney said. “They saw, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ They came in with the mindset that we want to keep this going.”
Kenney has seen the change since day one in the preseason. This group is different, at least so far.
“The preseason has gone well,” Kenney said. “One, they came in in good shape – they worked hard over the summer. And two, they came in with a great attitude. It’s showed in the way we trained. The preseason has gone as smooth as it can go.”
Vets has played a handful of exhibition games already, and put its skill on display on Tuesday at the Warwick Vets Fall Soccer Tournament when it battled Division I Bishop Hendricken before falling 1-0.
“Vets has a nice team,” Hendricken head coach Mickey Rooney said. “That was a good test for us.”
The ’Canes have two all-division players returning, and that’s where its success will start. While first-team sweeper Will Hay and second-team midfielder/forward Cody Sullivan graduated, first-team senior forward Justin Batista returns after becoming one of D-III’s top scoring threats last year.
“He’s just got a pure knack in front,” Kenney said of Batista. “We haven’t seen anyone around like him in a long time. It’s uncanny his way in front. He puts it in.”
Also back in the mix is second-team all-division center midfielder Nikone Soupharath, a junior, who also made a name for himself a season ago as a leader in the middle.
“He’s cemented his spot there,” Kenney said.
Taking over for Hay at sweeper is junior Brad Robert, an honorable mention all-division selection last year as a stopper.
He’s the leader of the defense, and is having little trouble with the position change.
“Soccer-wise, he knows what he’s doing back there,” Kenney said. “We lose Will – they’re two different kind of players. Will was heart, blood and guts, and Brad just knows what to do. He gets it done.”
There are quite a few other veterans, as well.
Joining Robert in the back is junior Brandon Gemmell – who started last year – and he’ll play on the wing along with junior John Hunt. At stopper, senior Tyler Kurtz is stepping in after playing on the wing last year.
Behind that group is senior goalie Mike Riccitelli, who had a solid season last year. The backup goalie is sophomore Cameron Skuce, who Kenney thinks could step in without a problem if the situation called for it.
“The biggest relief was that our two goalkeepers came in and have been flawless,” Kenney said. “They are working their butts off. Mike’s confidence level is up. He’s been playing very, very well. And Cameron could play for anybody.”
In the midfield next to Soupharath, sophomore Josiah Enos is ready to step in after playing as a freshman. Junior Andrew Falaguerra returns as well, and he can also help out on defense. Junior Adam Dorsey is handling one of the wing spots. Senior Tyler Oliveira will play up front with Batista and try to provide another viable scoring option.
But it doesn’t stop there. Vets has sophomore transfer Andrew LeBlanc, who comes from Connecticut, and he’ll play either defense or midfield. Sophomore Austin Asoroona is also an unexpected surprise who should see some time.
The ’Canes also have a talented freshman group, although none of them have cracked the lineup just yet.
“I actually have a real good freshman class,” Kenney said. “But I’m going to wait. I want to see a few JV games. The high school game is a different game.”
It adds up to a team that wants to keep progressing. Last year, the groundwork was laid. Vets doesn’t want to go backwards.
“There’s a positive vibe for us this year, and it’s coming for those 18 nitwits over here,” Kenney joked. “It’s a nice change.”
The ’Canes’ first regular season game is Friday, on the big stage. They will travel to defending D-III runner-up Tiverton for a 7 p.m. showdown.
They’re hoping it’s the start of something special, but they also don’t want to get ahead of themselves.
Vets will take year two of its upward trend one game at a time.
“I never get too optimistic,” Kenney said. “We’ve had what I thought were good teams in the past, so talk to me in a couple games and I’ll let you know. No matter what division you’re in, you’ve still got to play the games. You never know.”