Toma Gojcevic hears it all the time: The kind of talk most coaches would relish hearing, especially after the kind of season the Lehman men’s soccer team enjoyed last year when the Lightning captured the City University of New York Athletic Conference championship.
Can you repeat? Will you be as good as last season? Will Lehman be the team to beat in the CUNYAC again this year?
For Gojcevic, Lehman’s head coach, it has all become a little draining.
“Being the defending champ, that’s a little nerve-wracking,” said Gojcevic, who was named CUNYAC coach of the year after guiding the Lightning to a 10-4-3 overall record last season, including a 6-0-2 mark in the CUNYAC, and the second championship in school history.
“I know I have a big bull’s-eye on my back, and so does my team. But we’ll do the best we can, and we’ll fight tooth and nail.”
The Lightning have a lot at their disposal with which to defend their title this season as the soul of last season’s champs — Essosa Aluyi, Michel Generoso, Nabi Ben Douba and Mamadou Talla — all return. It’s the Lightning’s version of the “Core Four,” a name given to Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera during their New York Yankees days.
“Having all those guys back is tremendous for us,” Gojcevic said. “That’s our core of the team, and they look hungry. I also have a couple of nice transfer players, too, so I think the team is going to be really good.”
While Gojcevic can sleep well knowing he has Aluyi and company back, he might toss and turn a bit figuring out how to replace the graduated Irvin Barreto in goal. Barreto was an All-CUNYAC First Team pick last season, and his absence could be felt early on as Gojcevic searches his roster for a suitable replacement.
“I think I have a solid eight kids who could probably take the spots of a couple of starters if given the opportunity, so I think we have a really good mix on the team,” Gojcevic said. “We’re going to be a little inexperienced in goal because I got two freshmen, but other than that, I’m looking forward to the season.”
One of the new faces Gojcevic is high on is Salh Alzubidi, a transfer from Westchester Community College.
“With Salh and Essosa, they are going to present a lot of problems” for other teams, Gojcevic said. “Salh is a phenomenal player.”
One thing Gojcevic doesn’t have to concern himself with is his team’s attitude. Despite the championship hardware sitting in the school’s trophy case, there will be no complacency once this season gets underway.
“Obviously our goal is to repeat,” Gojcevic said. “But I’d also like to be that first CUNY team to win an NCAA tournament game, because no one has done it yet.
The coach expects his team will do well, despite the fact that it’s tough to repeat.
“I think my kids are up for that because it’s been preached to them since last year,” Gojcevic said. “Having the core back is a great plus for us.”
Lehman lost to Rowan, 4-0, in its NCAA tournament game last season. But this year’s team is deeper than that one, Gojcevic said, especially because of his program’s success with attracting quality talent.
“My coaches and I have done a nice job going out and recruiting people, but it helps if you win,” Gojcevic said. “Now my players go out and say to guys, ‘Listen, we’re the team that you need to play for.’ So you have that carrot out there that you can dangle now.”
If Gojcevic finds a dependable replacement for Barreto in goal, then it could have the makings of another memorable season for the Lightning, with maybe another CUNYAC title to be grabbed. And maybe, just maybe, that elusive first NCAA Tournament victory for a CUNYAC program.
“Goalkeeper is really our biggest question,” Gojcevic said. “Defensively, we’re strong and our midfielders are strong. We have a great mix of experience and youth, but at the end of the day you got to play the games. I’m sure they’re all going to come after us.
“But we’re prepared for that. If we take care of our goalkeeping then I think this team could actually be better than it was last year.”