The University of Cincinnati men's soccer team had the honor of winning the school's first-ever Big East championship in any sport when the Bearcats took the league's "Red" division title last season.
Sure, it was only Cincinnati's second year in the Big East, so the team wasn't overcoming decades of athletic futility in taking the title, but it was still a significant accomplishment. Less than 24 months after joining one of the nation's most competitive soccer conferences, coach Hylton Dayes led his team to the top.
"We obviously were very pleased with the way things turned out for us, but the challenge is to be able to stay at this level," Dayes said. "You can put together a good season if everything falls into place for you, but the real challenge and the real mark of a good program is one that seems to consistently do it year in and year out."
That, of course, rests on finding the necessary players to sustain success, which was the challenge Dayes and his staff faced heading into 2007. As they've learned the last few years, recruiting in the Big East is a completely different process than it was in Conference USA.
"Now going into our third year, I think we have a better understanding of what type of player will be successful in the Big East," Dayes said. "The soccer is not only better, but [with 16 teams in the conference] the style of play is such that players have to be able to adapt to playing a little more physical, sometimes more wide open."
Because of this, there's been change when it comes to what the coaching staff looks for in prospective players. The bar has been raised. They need to be faster, stronger and better equipped to make quick tactical adjustments, something Dayes said has been a real challenge.
While that might be true, signing top talent isn't as tough as it was for the Bearcats a few years ago.
"I think a lot of the recruiting now is driven by conference," Dayes said. "We're finding that we're certainly getting more interest from that higher level player who wants to play at the top level and wants to play in a high-profile league such as the Big East."
The trick is not only finding those top level players, but finding a place for them in the lineup.
"Your recruiting class is a function of what your needs are, and a lot of our needs were on the offensive side of the ball because we graduated a number of players in those positions," Dayes said.
The biggest loss among those players was All-Big East forward Omar Cummings (a third-round draft pick by Colorado in the MLS Superdraft). Finding someone to replace him was the first order of business.
The Bearcats are hoping, but not yet banking on the chance, Branden Stelmack could be that player.
"We think he is going to be a good addition to our arsenal," Dayes said of the 5-foot-10 forward out of the Cleveland area. "He's a tremendous goal scorer. I can't say he's going to replace Omar Cummings, but I certainly think he's going to put up a good fight."
Also adding to the attack will be All-American junior college transfer Scott Stockum from Cincinnati State, the same school where Cummings began his collegiate career. Stockum has the versatility to play any of the front three positions and the ability to get other players involved. Two years at the JC level should have him more prepared than any of the Bearcats' recruits.
Another key hole to fill was in goal where the Bearcats graduated three-year starter Mike Vessells. That's where the team may have landed its top recruit in Miguel Rosales out of Colorado. An All-American and two-time Colorado Player of the Year, Rosales "is definitely a Big East-caliber goalkeeper," according to Dayes, and will be a favorite for the starting job.
Rounding out the current list will be another goalkeeper, Isiah Castro (out of Watsonville, Calif.), defender Mike Hnat and midfielder/forward Matt Telting. However, Dayes said there is a possibility that the team will add two or three more players by the fall.
Here's a look at how some of the other recruiting classes are shaping up in the Big East's "Red" division:
DePaul: The Blue Demons signed four new players to their squad including two (more or less) local midfielders in Willy Lara and Andre Gutierrez. Lara is a two-time all-state high school player and member of the Chicago Fire Juniors. Gutierrez, originally from Aguascalientes, Mexico, has been a fixture at New Trier High School the last two seasons and helped lead his team to the Illinois state title. Scott Freundlich, a midfielder/defender with the Dallas Texans club team, and Matt Leinauer, a midfielder/forward out of St. Louis, round out the group.
St. John's: The Red Storm have a history of consistent success, exemplifying what Dayes cited as the mark of a great program. This year's recruits will be tasked with helping to carry on that tradition. The group includes three players with regional level experience: midfielder Anthony Han (Region I), defender Anthony Vasquez (Region I) and goalkeeper Matt Walker (Region II squad and former U-17 residency player). Coach Dave Masur also adds two players from the elite Dallas Texans, midfielder Ale Ivo and defender Mackenzie Ward, as well as an international player in midfielder Sverre Gundhus out of Olso, Norway.
Syracuse: The Orange have also signed six players to this fall's squad, including a pair of transfers. Midfielder Kenny Caceros and defender Brien Chamney both hail originally from Ontario, Canada. Chamney spent last season playing at McMaster University in Ontario, while Caceros played for the University of Maine in 2006 after spending two years with the USL's Ottawa Fury. Goalkeeper Christian Iordanou, forward/midfielder Justin Arena and Nicholas Olivetti, a forward with ODP level experience, complete the class.
Villanova: The team finished 2006 in the Big East basement. To try and help them get out of there, the Wildcats have signed six players to national letters of intent. After averaging just a goal a game last year (14th in the Big East), the team adds three forwards in Sean Mergenthal, Dillon Chapman and Anthony Griffith, along with Jake Heyer in the midfield. Defender Christopher Christian and keeper David Sauerhoff should add depth to the other side of the ball.
Former Conference USA member South Florida is also among those in this division, but the team is still working on its class, according to coach George Kiefer.
Maria Burns covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at email@example.com.