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PREVIEW: Reloaded Robert Morris men vie to remain NEC contenders

There is one Division I college men’s soccer program in Pittsburgh that currently has produced multiple players in the pros — and that program is Robert Morris University.

Not only is Neco Brett excelling with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in his third year as a professional, but Devon ‘Speedy’ Williams has played for the last two United Soccer League championship teams (NY Red Bulls II and Louisville City FC).

These players are a testament to a program that was started with Pittsburgh and U.S. coaching icon John Kowalski more than 30 years ago, and has continued with Bill Denniston for the past 22 seasons.

While both Brett and Williams have helped elevate the program in recent years, Denniston’s current Colonials; squad will be looking to get back as a contender in the Northeast Conference, which they last won in 2015 with Brett leading the charge.

A year ago, despite a 4-11 overall record, the Colonials showed a lot of resolve with two consecutive wins to finish fourth in the NEC with a 3-3-1 conference record, and landed a spot in the NEC playoffs, where they would eventually fall to Saint Francis (NY), 3-0.

“The expectation for a team is to do better than last year,” Zac Sherman, senior forward, said. “This year we have to do better (than just making the NEC Tournament).”

The Colonials, who will have to replace its two leading scorers from 2017, All-NEC selections Bayley Winkel (10g, 2a) and Keane McIvor (2g, 8a), were picked in to finish sixth in the 2018 Northeast Conference (NEC) standings, according to a poll of the league’s head coaches released last week.

Denniston is steering a program that may be in transition, but will have a number of exciting new players and a decent core of key returning players.

“There’ll be big changes this year, as we had nine seniors last year,” Denniston said. “But we’re certainly good enough to get back to the tournament, and the expectation is to do better than last year, so last year we made it, and this year we hope we can do better.”

Denniston is high on a few incoming international players – including a junior Brazilian transfer Guilherme Fanck, who put together some impressive numbers (21 goals and four assists) at NAIA Campbellsville University (Ky), in 27 contests in 2015-16. Fanck sat out 2017 with an ACL injury.

In addition, a couple other imports including a pair of freshman from Italy, defender Raffaele Vio and midfielder Lorenzo Gaugneli, from Italy, who played in 129 matches in helping Ravenna F.C. win promotion from Serie D to Serie C in 2017. Vio, from Venezia, will likely be slotted in to one of the center back positions.

RELATED: 2018 Northeast Conference Men’s Soccer Preseason Coaches’ Poll

The Colonials are looking to earn their third NEC Tournament bid in the last four seasons.

In addition, the roster also features some key returning players including Sherman who scored three goals a season ago. Junior forward Christian Coridon added five points (2g, 1a) in 2017 — as both will be taking on a more prominent role in the attack.

Redshirt senior goalkeeper Winter Fondi (Quaker Valley) has started the last 32 matches between the posts, while senior midfielder Kai Olguin and sophomore defenders Gustaf Moberg and Oeyvind Skjesol return after starting 11 or more contests last season.

The Colonials roster is also filled with numerous local products in addition to Fondi.

Junior goalkeeper Christian Snatchko (Canon-Mac), freshman Jake Plumb (Moon), freshman Nate Graziani (West Allegheny), freshman Seth Schleicher (Montour), senior Noah Elamin (Shaler), junior Justin Cole (Norwin), sophomore Matt Cillo (South Fayette) and freshman Keaton Jennings (North Catholic).

Robert Morris begins its 2018 campaign on Friday, Aug. 24 against Canisius in a rematch of a game they lost after building a 3-0 lead in 2017.

“That loss is still fresh in our minds,” Sherman said. “Not many times you will experience that after being up three. It was a long trip back home, but I think this year should be a lot different.

That match is set for a 4:00 p.m. opening kick at the friendly confines of the North Athletic Complex.

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

PItt MF Michael Sullivan

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