MORAGA, Calif. -- One primary goal of nearly every college soccer coach is to compile a schedule helps their team improve as the season progresses, compete for a conference title and earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
With a non-conference slate that includes three regular-season league champions, six road matches, four out-of-region opponents and numerous local rivalry matches, it appears Saint Mary's head coach Adam Cooper has done exactly that.
The Gaels open their season with three consecutive road games in challenging environments. SMC travels to upstate New York in late August for season opening matches at Colgate and Syracuse before returning to the West Coast to play at defending Pacific-12 Conference champion Washington on Sept. 7.
"Our goal is always to prepare our team to make a run for a conference championship," said Cooper. "In order to do that, you have to be able to win on the road. It will be a great test for us to open the season by traveling across the country to play games at Colgate and Syracuse then travel to Washington, which spent a lot of time as the number one team in the country last year.
"We are going to throw our guys into the fire right from the start and quickly see what we are made of."
SMC opens its 9-match home schedule on Sept. 12 with a 4 p.m. match against Missouri Valley Conference opponent Central Arkansas. Two days later, the Gaels host Atlantic Sun Conference champion Florida Gulf Coast University in a 12 Noon kickoff.
"It is good for our team to play programs from outside of our region," explained Cooper. "The RPI is structured in such a way that it helps to play out of region games. In addition, we will see some different styles of soccer. That will help us prepare for our conference season as well as the NCAA Tournament."
Saint Mary's welcomes defending Western Athletic Conference champion Seattle University in a 4 p.m. start on Sept. 19 in Saint Mary's Stadium. The Redhawks upset Creighton 2-1 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before dropping a 4-2 decision at cross-town rival and top-seeded Washington in the second round.
On Sept. 21, the Gaels host San Jose State in the first of three-straight matches against Bay Area opponents. The following weekend, SMC travels to Sacramento State and UC Davis.
A new era in the West Coast Conference begins in early October with the addition of the University of the Pacific for men's soccer. In 2014, the Tigers will be playing their first season of college soccer since 1985 and will be a full member of the WCC in their inaugural season. Saint Mary's has been assigned as Pacific's travel partner for league scheduling purposes.
All eight WCC soccer programs open its 10-game schedule against league opponents. The first three of those, however, do not count toward league standings. SMC hosts Portland on Friday, Oct. 3, travels to Gonzaga on Sunday, Oct. 5 and welcomes conference newcomers Pacific to Moraga on Saturday, Oct. 11.
The official seven-game league schedule begins on Oct. 17 when the Gaels travel to San Diego. Other road games include at Loyola Marymount (Oct. 19), Portland (Nov. 9) and Pacific (Nov. 15).
League home games include Oct. 31 against San Francisco, Nov. 2 vs. Santa Clara and the regular-season home finale against Gonzaga on Nov. 7 at 2 p.m.
"With only seven games counting toward the conference championship, there is little room for error," said Cooper. "Every game is vital, but when you get into those seven games there is no way to make-up for a mistake. That's why we have to work hard in our non-conference games and be prepared when the league games come around."
Saint Mary’s loses just two seniors and one starter, forward Justin Howard, from its team that finished among the top four in the West Coast Conference standings for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Last year’s team featured mostly freshmen and sophomores with just two seniors and four juniors on its roster.
Four Saint Mary’s student-athletes earned all-WCC recognition in 2013, including veteran rising senior defender Bobby Conner - a first-team all-league selection. The Gaels went 7-9-4 overall and finished in fourth place in the league with a 5-5-2 mark. SMC played a school-record 11 overtime matches and seven of the team’s nine losses were determined by just one goal.