LeBaron Hollimon has high expectations for his Kansas Wesleyan men’s soccer team this fall.
“Realistically we’re looking at being a top four team, we feel like that’s something we can get to,” said Hollimon, who enters his second season as the Coyotes’ coach. “Obviously, we want to be better than that but we’ve got to be realistic with everything and top four is realistic for us.”
Yes, Hollimon knows his fellow Kansas Conference coaches picked KWU 11th in their preseason poll but has a different opinion. Much different.
The Coyotes were 5-12-1 last fall but finished strong winning four of their last six matches that included a 3-1 victory over No. 25-ranked McPherson in the season finale at Graves Family Sports Complex.
“It was a big victory for us because it showed what we were truly capable of,” Hollimon said. “It’s just a shame it came a little too late in the year.”
The key to the late season about-face was consistency.
“Our problem was putting together a full 90 minutes,” he said. “We’d have pockets of games where we just didn’t put it together well and we’d get punished for it. Once we figured how to be more consistent with what we were doing, that’s when we really started playing well.”
The rough start was to be expected with a new coach, several new players and a rash of injuries to key players. The Coyotes stayed the course and eventually reaped some benefits, though.
“Never stopped believing that we weren’t good enough,” Hollimon said. “At the beginning of the year players were out so we never really had our full squad together until about the middle of the season. Then once we had everybody together you could see what we could do.”
Gaining familiarity with one another – players and coaches – also was a factor.
“The perfect example was Havier Zaragoza (SR/Hacienda Heights, Calif.),” Hollimon said. “We were playing him outside midfielder or outside forward and one day we thought let’s move him outside back because we like his skill set. We moved him and he was phenomenal but it took us a while to recognize that.”
KWU returns several players from last season and are bolstered by a group of newcomers. Leading the list of veterans are senior midfielder Alfonso Lopez (SR/Fontana, Calif.), sophomore forward Israel Good (SO/Beaumont, Calif.) and senior defender Manuel Jimenez (SR/Lexington, Neb.).
“Lopez was a huge catalyst for us last year,” Hollimon said. “He’s good on the ball, he understands the game and dictates tempo for us very well. Good had a good freshman year last year. He got hurt and missed a few games but came out strong for us so we’re expecting him to lead the way again this year. Jimenez came to us from Division I (Gardner-Webb). He didn’t play as much as he liked to but he picked up an injury and it made it difficult to select him because of the injury. We’re expecting big things from him.”
Two transfers and a freshman highlight the list of new arrivals.
“We’re counting on a transfer from Snow College, (midfielder) Guilherme Ayres (SO/Goiania, Goias, Brazil),” Hollimon said. “We got another transfer from Webber International in (defender) Facundo Redin (SR/Buenos Aires, Argentina). These guys are experienced players so we expect experienced guys to come in right away and have an impact.
“One of the freshmen we’re looking forward to is (defender) Brayden Moore (FR/Beaumont, Calif.). He comes to us from Beaumont, California and we’re expecting him to show well. The other freshmen are going to be good but it’s just different. The college game is faster, more physical and how quickly they come to grips with all that will determine their trajectory.”
KWU had one goalkeeper last season, freshman Oswaldo Diaz-Lopez (SO/Bryan, Texas), but is one of four keepers this fall.
“We kind of tried to wrap Oz in bubble wrap to make sure we kept him healthy for the year,” Hollimon said. “They’re going to push each other to do great things and we’ll see which one rises to the occasion best.”
The Coyotes open the season against Doane at 3:15 p.m. Sunday in Crete, Neb. It’s the first match of a difficult non-conference schedule.
“I want them to be battle tested when we go to conference so that they’ve seen a lot and are prepared for it,” Hollimon said. “We certainly don’t want to lose games but you learn more when you’re pushed and you’re challenged. That’s where we want to be and why we set up non-conference games that way.”
The KCAC figures to be as difficult as ever.
“You’ve got Oklahoma Wesleyan and McPherson,” Hollimon said. “Ottawa’s going to be better this year, they’ve got a new coach over there and I know his pedigree. Everybody’s getting better, nobody’s sitting around resting on their laurels. Any given day anybody can win in the KCAC.”
Hollimon said the Coyotes must remember what transpired in 2021.
“We’ve got to have the belief that what we’re doing is going to allow us to do well,” he said. “Keep reminding them ‘this is where we were last year, this is how we finished up and this is what we were doing well.’ We’ve got to continue that.”