Working for No. 6

Losing just two of top nine point scorers and starting goalkeeper bodes well for Tars’ men’s soccer team making sixth consecutive NCAA tourney.

Rafa Faria ’14 can easily name why he transferred to Rollins College two years ago to play soccer.

The Venezuela native and Miami resident had just spent two bitter winters at Penn State and, after a coaching change, was told he’d receive less playing time. His ensuing recruiting trip to Rollins also showed him how tight-knit the team was, and he knew his family could see him play more often.

But one major factor led him to spurn University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the University of Missouri – Kansas City.

“The program was coming off a year they went to the final four,” said Faria, an international business major who led the Tars with 23 points in 2011 but missed last season because of an ankle injury. “I could see with the returning players, we had a real good shot. I always want to win. After I visited Rollins, I didn’t visit any more schools.”

The Tars, however, couldn’t achieve Faria’s goal of winning a national championship. Their season ended last month with a 2-1 loss to Carson-Newman in the NCAA Division II quarterfinals.

They finished 17-3, tied for the most wins in program history under 23-year head coach Keith Buckley ’88. In late October, the Tars were ranked No. 1 for the second time in program history and made the NCAA tournament for the fifth consecutive season.

Much of the success stemmed from a strong offense. Rollins led all Division II teams with 9.50 points per game and was second with 3.40 goals per game, 0.01 behind Simon Fraser’s 3.41.

“You go into a season and you hope your plans are going to work out,” Buckley said. “We did really well off set pieces. We played quick and created lots of good opportunities. We’d score goals in bunches. We’d score goals at the right times in games.”

Faria finished with 25 points, netting 10 goals and five assists. Grant Blackhurst ’16 produced a team-high 11 goals and 27 points, and Tucker Hume ’15 added 26 points.

With just two of the top nine players in points graduating, the Tars will return a lot of offensive talent. However, they’ll lose starting goalkeeper Keneil Baker ’14 and backup Anthony White ’14 to graduation. That places pressure on the development of Keenan Kushner ’17.

“They haven’t been tested yet,” Buckley said. “They’re going to have to step up pretty quick.”

Buckley will also have to make sure his team doesn't become complacent. The players can’t assume they’ll make the NCAA tournament for a sixth straight year because of previous success.

But that doesn’t sound like it’ll be a problem.

“You realize how tough it is when you come back to try to score goals,” Blackhurst said. “I think it’s also about having a good team. Knowing all my team wants to win makes you want to win more.”

The Tars lost three of their last four games, a stretch that included No. 3 Lynn and No. 7 Saint Leo. Faria believes each of those defeats came down to a mistake or injury and that the Tars were the better team. Buckley said the team didn't play as well as it could down the stretch.

The poor play is providing motivation for the offseason.

“We learned a lot about ourselves,” Blackhurst said. “We learned what strengths we had. We were good on the wings. We’ve got guys who can finish. But we also learned from our mistakes. We learned a lot as a team about what we need to do next season.

“I think everyone believes we can go on to do better next year. Everybody’s looking forward to next season. I think for sure the expectation for next year is to get to the final four.”

Although he won't be a part of it, Faria thinks the Tars can go further than that.

“All the other players that are leaving, they are hard to replace, but you can find people who can score,” he said. “If they let go of the mistakes in important games, they have a good shot of winning it all in the next one or two years. I think they’ll have a great chance.”