MORAGA, Calif. -- With 22 freshmen and sophomores on the Gaels' roster, Saint Mary's soccer fans attending Friday's season opener against Air Force are encouraged to pick up a program before the match.
Coach Adam Cooper's new-look Gaels take to the field Friday at 4 p.m. for their first match of the season against the Falcons at Saint Mary's Stadium.
Season, single-game and group ticket packages are available through the tickets link on SMCGaels.com or by calling the SMC Athletic Ticket Office at (925) 631-GoTx (4689). For those unable to attend, the match will be streamed live via subscription service Gaels Live. Real-time statistics will also be available on SMCGaels.com.
Residents of Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda can purchase a general admission ticket to Friday's game for just $3 with proof of residency, while members of the military can receive one free admission with the purchase of a ticket with military ID.
Saint Mary's returns seven starters and 14 letterwinners from last year's team that finished third in the West Coast Conferencer and competed down to the wire for an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament.
Despite the loss of five seniors, including WCC Defender of the Year Trevor Newquist, first team all-WCC midfielder Jose Cabeza and four-year letterwinning defender Nathan Arambula, the Gaels return a talented group of players and a class of newcomers that is expected to contribute right away.
"I am really excited to see what this team is capable of," said SMC head coach Adam Cooper, a two-time WCC Coach of the Year. "It is a very young and very talented team and my expectations are very high. Even though we are young, we have enough returning players and enough good leaders that we should be able to compete for another WCC title and a spot in the NCAA Tournament."
Much is said about the team's youth, but a group of seniors and juniors are expected to shoulder the leadership load for the Gaels this season. Senior forward Justin Howard is the most experienced player on the team; junior Andre Rawls set school records in his first season in goal last year; and, junior Bobby Conner is one of the top defenders on the West Coast.
Other returning starters include: sophomore defender Forrest Solis, sophomore midfielders Ismail Adam, Gerardo Mendoza and Jake Stenberg.
"My expectation is that the younger players come into the program and contribute right away," said Cooper, who has led the Gaels to a top-3 league finish in three of the last four seasons. "Every training during the preseason has been competitive with guys fighting for playing time. I won't use our youth as an excuse, for sure. We might make mistakes at times because of it, but we are going to make up for them quickly."
Air Force, a NCAA Tournament team last season after winning the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament, was projection by league coaches to finish second in its first season in the Western Athletic Confernece. The Falcons supported that prediction last weekend by posting a 2-0 home exhibition win over preseason 11th-ranked New Mexico.
Senior captains Caleb Downey and Brian Klazura lead the way for Air Force. Downey, who had two game-winning goals against New Mexico last season, was recently named the WAC preseason Defensive Player of the Year. He scored three goals and started every game on the back line last year. Klazura, meanwhile, joined Downey on the preseason all-WAC team after tying for third on the team in scoring last season with seven points.
"Air Force is an incredible difficult team to play," said Cooper. "They are big, athletic, strong, disciplined, they work hard and they know how to win. The last couple of years they have won a lot of games and they've been in the (NCAA) Tournament. They are a very good team. I expect a very difficult game."
Following Friday's opener, the Gaels return to Saint Mary's Stadium on Sunday for a 2 p.m. kickoff against LIU Brooklyn.
Sunday is labled as an End of the Summer Party / Welcom Back Tailgate and is also one of two Youth Day special promotions during the year. Fans can enjoy a pregame mini-festival featuring local shops and restaurants, face painting and other activities. Youth 8th grade and under can purchase a $1 ticket by wearing their team jersey and get in on a pregame chalk talk and postgame autograph session.
Junior Gaels Club members can receive free admission by showing their membership card or wearing their exclusive club t-shirt. For information on joining Junior Gaels, click here.