(Photo courtesy MSU Billings)

(MSUB Athletics release)

BILLINGS – Since Alex Balog took the helm as head coach at Montana State University Billings, the men’s soccer program has increased its wins total in each of the last four seasons.

In the eyes of the Yellowjackets, who make their debut on Thursday afternoon in Salt Lake City, Utah, the 2017 campaign will continue the recent trend of success. “If I look back to the 2013 season, the results have gotten better, the roster has gotten stronger, academically we are doing better, and our community engagement hours have gone up,” Balog said. “We would like to see the efforts from the past four seasons accumulate into a bid for the national tournament this year.”

The ‘Jackets are coming off a 9-6-3 season last fall, and took fourth place in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference with a league record of 5-4-3. The team cracked into the NCAA west region rankings as highly as No. 8, and will need to be ranked within the top-six at the end of the regular season in order to qualify for its first ever national tournament berth. “It’s something we have been vocal about with the players, without wanting it to be a burden,” Balog commented on the lofty but attainable goal. “The road is going to be long, and we are going to take it day-by-day as we have been doing the past four years. We won’t look ahead too much, but we know what we are playing for and working towards.”

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MSUB plays at Westminster College Thursday afternoon at 3 p.m., before taking on Dixie State University on Saturday at 1 p.m. The team’s first home games will be at Yellowjacket Field on Sept. 8-10, when the ‘Jackets host the Fourth Annual Rimrock Classic in memory of Trevor Wildberger.

Establishing itself as an offensive juggernaut last year, MSUB tied for third in the entire NCAA west region with 40 goals scored. Though the team lost GNAC Newcomer of the Year and the conference’s leading scorer in Julien Dragomir (12 goals in 2016), a swath of returning firepower is a big reason for the team claiming the No. 3 position in the GNAC preseason coaches poll released earlier this month.

Among the returners up top are all-conference selections Ricardo Palomino and JD Hauenstein, who combined to score a quarter of the team’s goals last fall. Palomino, the GNAC Newcomer of the Year and all-region selection after his 16-goal 2015 season, has racked up 22 goals so far in his two seasons at MSUB and will be counted on to be a key figure at striker this season. “We would like Ricardo to have the same type of season he had as a sophomore, but he also played a valuable role last year,” Balog commented on Palomino’s production despite being limited to just 10 starts and 939 minutes in 2016. “He has developed into a threat within the GNAC, and we look forward to having him show us what he’s got.”

MSUB Career Scoring Leaders
Rk. Name Goals Seasons
1. Sam Charles 69 2006-09
2. Dave Austin 27 1997-2001
3. Thomas Pertuit 23 2001-04
4. Ricardo Palomino
22 2015-17
5. Chris Andre 20 2007-10

Hauenstein forced his way into the starting lineup by the middle of his freshman season, and wound up with four goals and three assists. The ‘Jackets will look to supplement their offense with the addition of Icelander Agust Hallsson and Dutch attacking midfielder Shantik Bedrosian, as well as returning senior Victor Sanchez. Missoula native Dana Kowachek adds a high gear of speed and ability on the wing, and brings two years of collegiate experience to the program after transferring from Fort Lewis College.

“We have a lot of speed on each wing, which makes us a little bit unpredictable,” said Balog. “We can switch points of attack and we are bringing a lot of experience and quality back.”

Returning to the midfield to captain the squad this year are senior Niklas Schregel and junior Guillaume Kremer, who will both be relied on for heavy minutes in the center of the pitch. Kremer started 16 matches and ranked second on the team with six assists a season ago, while Schregel has scored five goals in his three seasons including two in 13 starts last year. “Guillaume has great vision and Niklas knows the GNAC in and out,” Balog commented on his captains. “Those two guys are going to be instrumental in our buildup.”

Also figuring into the lineup at midfield will be junior Adam Hepburn and sophomore Ignacio Crespo, and newcomers Sam Phillips and Guillaume Marneau. “Competition for playing time in the middle of the field is going to be one of the biggest battles we have,” said Balog. “We are looking forward to that battle, and no matter who emerges as the three starters, we are going to have a good midfield.”

Earning second-team all-conference accolades as a true freshman last season, Italian center back Oliver Posarelli returns to anchor MSUB’s defensive unit. Not only did Posarelli start all 18 matches and lead all players with 1,609 minutes, but he contributed offensively with three goals and a pair of assists.

The ‘Jackets are looking forward to having depth at the defensive positions, with Eli Williams, Chad Triplett, Alexis Chavez, and Aidan Raj all seeing significant time last fall. Joining into the mix at the back positions will be newcomers Luca Battistotti and Realf Zhivanaj, who both figure to slot into the rotation as well.

“We will look at Oliver to anchor the defense, and we will have good competition for the other positions along the back line,” Balog said. “The experience we bring back, along with Tom’s presence in goal behind them, is going to ensure we have one of the most solid defenses in the conference.”

Last fall couldn’t have gotten off to a better start for senior goalkeeper Tom Lohmann, who recorded a pair of shutouts and earned GNAC Player of the Week honors through his first four matches. It wound up being the only four games he played during an injury-laden season, but the all-conference shot-stopper will be back in the nets this fall for MSUB.

In just over two seasons, Lohmann has racked up 145 career saves and enters this year No. 4 in school history. He needs 52 saves to become MSUB’s all-time leader, a title currently held by Matt Mitchell (196 saves, 2007-2010). “To get a fifth-year senior who has the ability to become a professional player upon the conclusion of his career is going to make an enormous difference,” Balog commented on Lohmann. “With Tom, we are looking at the best keeper in the conference, and it goes without saying that every player on the team looks up to him.”

MSUB Career Saves Leaders
Rk. Name Saves Seasons
1. Matt Mitchell 196 2007-2010
2. Eoin Hurley 177 2011-13
3. Jess Feldtman 174 2003-05
4. Tom Lohmann
145 2014-16
5. Paul Corcoran 133 1998-99
6. Jacob Shepherd 129 2000
7. Sander Tollefson 113 2006-09
8. Gordie Vierck 97 2001-03

On the other end of the spectrum are a pair of freshman goalkeepers who will begin their careers with Lohmann to lean on as a mentor. Californians Javier Hernandez and Kyle Kellogg split time for the ‘Jackets during the preseason, and are worthy candidates to fill the depth chart behind Lohmann. “We have two freshmen who will benefit from Tom’s presence greatly,” Balog said. “They’ll have someone to learn from a lot in terms of leadership.”

For the fourth straight season, MSUB’s men’s soccer team will continue its partnership with Team IMPACT and welcome Sebastien Easton back to its roster. “Sebastien is in his fourth season with the team, and to see him grow up to be a healthy 9-year-old who has beaten cancer and is full of life has been a blessing for our program,” Balog commented. “He and his family are integral parts of our program, and I believe that just like the last few years, he can be a vital inspiration to the team.”

For more information on MSUB’s partnership with Team IMPACT and to watch Sebastien’s story, click here.

The Yellowjackets capped exhibition play last Saturday with a 1-0 shutout of Rocky Mountain College in their final test before the regular season. The ensuing three weeks feature six non-conference games, before the ‘Jackets kick off the 12-game GNAC series in the race towards the NCAA playoffs. View the team’s full 2017 schedule online here.

“The fact that we had 11 players in summer ball is going to ensure that we bring back guys who are fit and ready to play,” said Balog. “They had a lot of experience at a high level the last few months, and they will hit the ground running in the fall.”