The excitement started when Ike Ofoje watched his team rally from a two-goal deficit against Augusta State.
The Pacers came back to tie the game,then defeated North Florida three days later. That's when the USC Aiken coach knew his team had made progress and gained confidence.
"It's one of those things where the players don't actually believe it until it actually happens," Ofoje said. "Being able to beat North Florida last year and tying ASU and losing to Clayton State in overtime, I think says a lot about how far we've come.
"I think this year will be wide open. Anything can happen."
The Pacers finished last season at 7-12-1, their best record since 1995. Now with five returning starters, Ofoje is looking to eclipse that mark.
The tandem of junior forwards Mark Turner and Richard Wolf return to give Ofoje a powerful scoring machine. Last season, Turner earned all-conference honors as he led the Pacers in assists (10) and points (28). Wolf had a team-high 10 goals on 63 shots.
"They'll form the backbone of the program," Ofoje said.
While 14 newcomers enter the program, the Pacers will get support in the backfield from returning defenders Paul Bailey and Art Blankenship. Junior midfielder Paul Okumu (two goals, three assists) will help Turner and Wolf up front.
USC Aiken lost both goalies, and the competition for the starting job will be between a pair of freshman in Frenchman Jean-Pascal Bozso and Floridian Peter Calabrese. Both will see time on the field together because Bozso can play in the field as well.
"He will be providing some good things for us," Ofoje said of Bozso.
The Pacers were picked to finish last in a preseason conference poll. Ofoje said his team has nowhere to go but up.
"From what I've seen in preseason, they look sharp and are highly motivated," he said. "This could be our year. We should be all right."
Ofoje had more success with his women's program, which finished 7-7-1 in its third year of existence. However, the team was 11-5-1 two years ago.
"Each year, I try to make the schedule a little tougher. So last year we played a little tougher schedule. Some of them kind of relaxed and we found out we weren't as good as we thought we were. You're only as good as your last game," he said.
The schedule will be tough enough this season when the Lady Pacers begin play in the first year of Peach Belt conference soccer against teams such as Francis Marion, North Florida and USC Spartanburg.
The Lady Pacers return eight starters including goalies Kellie Young and Tiffany Thursby, who split time in goal last season. The pair combined for 2.09 goals allowed per game along with 82 saves and two shutouts.
However, Thursby broke her leg three days before preseason, opening a backup position for goalie Bridget Brennan.
USC Aiken will have to fill the void of Kristen Schreiber, who led the team in goals (10) and points (23) last season.
Ofoje says he hopes freshman Brooke Rushing, a three-time, first-team region selection at Jenkins High School in Savannah, Ga., can pick up where Schreiber left off.
"That's my expectation of her," he said. "I have to set realistic goals for her and maybe she will come through. She's a freshman and she will play like a freshman. Hopefully, the support she will get from the older players will help her fit into the roles I'm trying to create for her."
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 868-1222.
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