0913 Lander men's soccer

Lander celebrates Brice Baillet’s goal toward the end of the first half during Lander’s 3-0 win against Erskine in the 2018 season.

There’s plenty of new faces joining the Lander men’s soccer team this season, but expectations remain the same for the program.

The Bearcats welcomed 16 newcomers in the offseason, including three transfers. Lander has reached the Peach Belt Conference tournament championship match in each of the last four seasons. The Bearcats have made 13 appearances in the NCAA Tournament, including four consecutive bids.

Lander will be looking to continue that recent run with a newer group this season.

“It’s an interesting challenge for us, having graduated so many key players and bringing in a good group of mostly freshmen, and a couple transfers,” Lander coach Lee Squires said. “It’ll be different, but it’s refreshing having a new group of guys.”

One of Lander’s strengths this season will be its depth at all positions. The team returned some key experienced players in junior defender Kyle Ferguson and senior forward George Knight, who is the new captain.

Lander will also welcome back junior midfielder Thibault Chretien, who was selected to the PBC’s preseason all-conference team. Chretien has racked up 21 points in his first two seasons at Lander and was honored as the league’s co-Freshman of the Year in 2017.

“He can beat you a number of ways,” Squires said of Chretien. “He’s got speed, he can dribble, he can pass, and he can shoot. He’s so elusive and just difficult to pick up if you’re the opposing team.”

Squires said he thinks the Bearcats are also a stronger attacking team this season, and there’s some newcomers that are already proving to be speedy goal-scoring threats.

One of those newcomers is freshman forward Max Bolton, the younger brother of recent graduate and key player Tyler Bolton. Max has helped lead Lander to a 2-0 start this season, scoring two goals in a 3-0 win over West Alabama on Sunday. He also had an assist in the season-opening 2-1 win over Alabama Huntsville.

Freshman forward/midfielder Max McNulty has flashed his scoring ability, scoring two goals in the preseason and one against West Alabama.

“I think we have more of an attacking threat this year compared to last year,” Squires said. “Our top goal-scorer last year was a defender, so I feel like we have more goals in the team this year. We feel like we’ve got a good group of guys that can make an impact.”

Squires said the team will be looking to make strides on defense as the season progresses. He expected it would take time to improve defensively with the heavy roster turnover and younger players.

“We’ll be missing some experienced defenders that were on the back end,” Squires said. “We’ve got some growing pains a little bit, defensively, but we’re excited about those guys.”

Dixie graduate Bradley Nickles will also join the Bearcats this season. In his senior year, Nickles broke his father’s goal-scoring record and had 74 goals and 16 assists overall.

“He had a couple of (scoring) chances in the preseason, and he’s just a great guy to have around,” Squires said. “He’s athletic, he’s dangerous, and he has a feel for where the goal is. He’s going to surprise a few people, and obviously he comes with a big reputation locally.”

With the younger group, Lander will be looking to defend its Southeast Region Championship this season. The Bearcats began the preseason ranked No. 5 and were picked to finish second in the PBC preseason poll, behind Young Harris.

“Most of the time, these preseason awards and rankings don’t carry much weight — it’s all about where you finish,” Squires said. “We’ll just concentrate on taking it one game at a time, and hopefully we’re No. 1 at the end.”

Contact sports writer Wesley Dotson at 864-943-2530 or follow him on Twitter @WesleyPDotson.