“I’m overwhelmingly excited,” said Neto, who was named to lead the Hawks in May after posting six straight winning seasons as the head coach at the University of the Cumberlands. “For the short time they’ve been together they’re looking good.”
“But the best part,” he quickly added with a wide smile, “is that they’re excited about the season.”
Certainly, Neto and the Hawks are very aware of the challenges ahead of them, tests that include the program’s first venture as an NCAA Division II competitor and the accompanying rugged Gulf South Conference schedule that goes with it, and doing so with a roster dominated by underclassmen.
The excitement, one the coach and the players share, can be traced to the philosophy of the game that Neto has brought to the Hawks and one that has made his home country the world’s premier soccer nation.
This season, Shorter takes the pitch adapting to the Brazilian-style of play that Neto, who hails from Sorocaba, Brazil, has introduced to the Hawks, one that is improvisational, free-flowing and fast-paced.
“We’ll be about playing out of the back and building numbers to make attacks,” explained Neto. “We want to keep the ball as much as we can. And I do think we have the pieces to play that game. Based on what I’ve seen we should be able to play that style.”
Building from the back means the Hawks can make the most of one of their strengths coming into the season. While the departure of some key contributors to last year’s 7-10-1 team left some holes to fill, Shorter does have experience back on the defensive side of the field. Returning to anchor the Hawks in goal is keeper Ryan Edwards of Douglasville, one just three seniors on the 24-man roster that is stacked by underclassmen. Edwards opens the season coming off a solid outing in 2011 when he had 1.89 goals against average and had 65 saves, and at the same time he returns to be the final barrier. The Hawks will be going to the other end of the experience spectrum and look to freshman Austen Trevers, who prepped at Hillgrove High in Marietta to be ready as the reserve.
In front of the keeper is a group of Hawks who have already proven themselves in the past and have the tools to initiate the new style. Junior captain Julian Kitkowski of Bremen, Germany heads up a deep list of defenders that includes fellow juniors Sean Malloy of LaGrange and Samuel Franz of Newnan, and sophomore Guy Hunt of Winder. Three more Hawks add to the defensive depth but will also be called upon to move forward to the midfield – junior Nick Christianson of Waterfield, Maine; sophomore Trevor Greenwald of Kingston, who tallied three goals and three assists last fall; and senior transfer Robert Cowalt of Rome, a former standout at nearby Model High.
Those assigned to roam the midfield are expected to emerge as the core of the Hawks’ style and includes a group who have seen a lot of actions. Kyle Stonecipher, a captain in his junior season, of Thomaston returns to reassume the starting slot he has held since he was a freshman, and is joined by junior Ryan Mcgourik of Thomaston, sophomores Diego Gonzalez of Mexico City, Mexico (four assists in 2011) and Sixto Moraga of Rome, and senior Luke Robinson of Rome. Neto said that a pair of freshmen can add to the versatility of the Hawks’ midfield, both who like the head coach are Brazilians and grew up playing the exciting style – Augusto Barreto and Thales Galan.
Up front at forward, the Hawks will have to find someone to make up for the scoring void left by the graduation of all-conference pick Gerry Perks, who led Shorter last year with 13 goals, and Neto believes they have found the right triple-threat combination. Suiting up again for SU will be sophomore Irvin Espinal of Honduras, a former star at Dalton High, who in addition to posting eight goals and four assists led the team with 51 shots on goal; sophomore Robert Ochieng of Macon, who despite being injured early last year still earned all-conference honors recording two goals and three assists as a midfielder; and true freshman Hayden Bell of Rome who recently closed out a solid career at Rome High.
Neto knows that the Hawks have little time preparing for what will be a grueling schedule and will be seeking to get into the new style niche by playing a pair of exhibition game before their season opener at home on Ben Brady field on Aug. 29 against Reinhardt – the first was held on Sunday against Talladega (2-2 tie) and the other to be on Aug. 25 at 2 p.m. at long-time cross-town rival Berry.
“It’s a much tougher conference with tough (GSC) teams like West Florida and Christian Brothers,” Neto said, noting that the Hawks will play their conference foes twice, as well as key showdowns against Division II non-conference powers Carson-Newman, Tusculum and Coker.
“The next few days are very important,” the coach said. “We need to get an identity as a team and I believe we will get it.”