Toma Gojcevic was fighting a nasty summer cold, one he said he picked up on a recent trip to Montenegro.
But even his annoying malady could not quell his enthusiasm for the upcoming soccer season, one which sees his Lehman College Lightning enter as the two-time defending champion in the City University of New York Athletic Conference.
And why shouldn’t he be stoked? Gojcevic has guided the Lightning to a near-flawless 14-0-2 conference mark over the past two seasons, and he also returns the top scorer in the league in Salh Alzubidi, who tallied 18 goals in 19 games last season.
So is Gojcevic enjoying the ride?
“It’s been a fun run,” said Gojcevic, now entering his fifth season as head coach. “As a coach, you take your lumps in the beginning. We won five games (in 2014) and I had to make a lot of changes. The program wasn’t where I wanted it. But the whole process has been great because now we’ve been winning.”
Last season, the Lightning followed up a perfect 8-0 run through the conference regular season with two playoff wins, capped by a 3-1 victory over John Jay that gave Lehman its second straight CUNYAC title.
“It was a great year. The kids really enjoyed it,” Gojcevic said. “We knew people were going to come at us, but we knew we had a very good team We also knew we had Salh and knew he was going to be the difference maker, and he turned out to be just that.”
And now Alzubidi is back for a second go-round at Lehman, but this time he’ll get a goal-scoring sidekick in Maissa Dieye, who was a All-SUNYAC Third Team selection last season at Buffalo State. When Buffalo State dropped its soccer program, its loss became Lehman’s gain.
“He was one of their leading goal scorers, so now we have him as well,” Gojcevic said. “He has a lot of speed and a lot of technical ability, so we’re going to have some dynamic play up front. Honestly, I think it’s going to be impossible to stop him and Salh.”
But Lehman is more than a two-man show. Gojcevic also returns the core of last year’s title team, so Alzubidi and Dieye will have lots of help on the pitch.
“We have six other guys returning from the starting lineup from last season like Eduardo Victorio, who was amazing as a freshman last year, and also Rafael Emiliano,” Gojcevic said. “I think, honestly, we’re going to be just as good as last year’s team, if not better.”
The Lightning also return stalwart goalkeeper Chris Mulholland, who Gojcevic credits as much as anyone for last season’s success.
“Chris Mulholland at goalkeeper, he was just the cog in the wheel that just brought the whole team together,” Gojcevic said. “He made all the stops that were necessary. And from a point early on, I knew it was going to be pretty much impossible for anybody to beat us as long as we played our game.”
The confidence from two straight championships has not ebbed leading into this season.
“We always felt that as long as we played our game that (opponents) had to beat us,” Gojcevic said. “So honestly, I don’t think there was much pressure on us, particularly after we won the first couple of games and we saw what we had. We were just solid all around. There really was no weakness.”
That appears to be the case for the Lightning again this season as they prepare to embark on a rare threepeat. It’s a topic that already has been broached.
“I mentioned it to a couple of the kids, and I said if we’re going to go for this threepeat thing, then the new guys have to take the lead from myself, the coaching staff and the members of this team that have gone through this process,” Gojcevic said. “It works, so you have to fit in.”
Lehman kicks off its season Aug. 31 at Sarah Lawrence, and will play its first four games on the road before its home opener Sept. 13 versus Purchase.
So have the rich only gotten richer this season?
“Listen, I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch, but we do have a good team,” Gojcevic said. “But as a program, we don’t take anything for granted. I’m sure the other teams in CUNY are going to come after us. I’m sure they have gone out and gotten some good players as well. So we’re just basically making sure our kids are doing what they’re supposed to do, and I’m sure we’ll be OK.”