SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The Sacramento State men's soccer program opens the 2018 season this weekend when the Hornets host Bethesda University for an exhibition match on Saturday, August 11 at 5 p.m. But first, their season began with Wednesday's first day of team training.
The Hornets, led by 30th year head coach Michael Linenberger, open their regular season on the road with a three-game road trip at Portland, at Oregon State, and at CSU Bakersfield. Sacramento State's home opener is scheduled for Sunday, September 2 against San Jose State.
Last year, Sacramento State finished the season with an 8-9-2 record and a 4-4-2 mark in the Big West Conference. The Hornets clinched their second straight postseason berth and their third in the last four seasons. The season came to an end on a heartbreaking overtime goal in the first round at CSUN.
Now, with the 2018 season quickly approaching, the Hornets will look to clinch their third consecutive postseason berth for the first time since joining the competitive Big West. They'll have to do so having graduated five starters, including both captains from last season. The Hornets welcome an incredible new class and open the season with a roster composed nearly three-quarters of underclassmen.
With the team's first exhibition game set for this weekend, the Sacramento State media relations office sat down with Linenberger to get his perspective on the team and the season.
Hornet Media: You've made the Big West Tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time since joining the Big West. Is there a point where you, your staff, and your players expect to be a postseason contender every year?
Mike Linenberger: I think the answer to that is both yes and no. 'Yes' because that it is important for us to come into every season with the confidence and expectation that we'll be playing in the postseason, but 'no' because we play in a tough league with a lot of parity.
You've got to be one of the top six teams to make the tournament and ideally you want to be the one or two seed. With that, you get a bye and will host a semifinal game. A new thing though that makes it more interesting is the league's new format without divisions.
But making the postseason is one of our goals every year. We plan to make it three in a row this season. We expect to be there, but we know it's not automatic. We know we have a lot of hard work ahead of us.
HM: You mentioned the new Big West structure for this season without divisions. Does this change alter your expectations or your season plan heading into the season?
ML: I think it's safe to say that it certainly changes things, but because this is the first year we've done this, how exactly it will change things we'll have to wait and see.
Only playing each team once instead of facing each division opponent twice makes things interesting. It also reduced our number of conference games from 10 to seven, while will definitely change the equation of the season and postseason.
Looking at it on paper, I'd say we're fortunate because four of our seven conference games are at home this season, but that's not something you can take for granted.
It's interesting because in the past we've felt one of the divisions was significantly stronger than the other from year to year. Now, everyone is fighting for the same six spots all in one table. It'll be exciting to see how it goes because it's new for everyone, not just for us.
HM: Last season you relied heavily on a number of freshman who played big minutes with a lot of success. How valuable is it for them and the other underclassmen to have had that experience in their first year?
It's great when you have a handful of freshman that can come in and contribute such big minutes and such positivity to the group right away in their first year. We expected them to come in strong and they met those expectations and more.
You hope that that experience they gained transitions into their second season and that they only continue to get stronger and better moving forward.
HM: On the back of that question, this new group of incoming players has been talked about as "your best recruit class ever." How do you expect them to factor into the season in their first year?
ML: The kind of immediate impact that last year's newcomer class had, we're going to need that again this year if we're going to have the success that we plan to have.
On paper, we feel this might be our top recruiting class that we've ever assembled in my 30 years here. We expect a handful of freshmen to come in and play big minutes and contribute. But of course we'll have to see how quickly and effectively the group comes together and adjust to the college level.
We expect to have maybe only nine upperclassmen and about 17 underclassmen so while it's a young group, it's definitely a talented group. We hope the freshmen can adapt quickly, we look for our sophomores to not catch the sophomore blues and stay hungry, and then we need our upperclassmen to stay healthy and provide good leadership.
HM: Speaking of upperclassmen leadership, you graduated six seniors last season, including four starters and two team captains. First, do you have new team captains? And do you feel confident in your players stepping up to fill the space left by those who graduated?
ML: We have named one captain at this point, and that is Dominic Scotti.
We were impressed with the work he did in the spring assuming a strong leadership role and from what we've observed he's done good work communicating with the guys in the offseason.
He's as healthy as he's ever been since he's been here. He's a fantastic player and we haven't ben able to get a full year out of him because of unfortunate injuries but he's coming into this season as healthy and fit as ever.
He trained with the Sac Republic first team this summer, as well. Their coaches talked about how great he played this summer so we're really looking at a big year from him.
In addition to Dom, even though it's a smaller group, we're confident in our returning upperclassmen to take over those leadership roles. It's important that they really set the example for the large underclassmen group.
HM: You mentioned that every year your team's goal is to advance to the postseason. What are some other, maybe smaller goals, that you've set for your team that will help you achieve that?
As a team we always sit down early in the preseason with our players and talk about this kind of thing, what we want to accomplish both on and off the field in addition to advancing to the postseason, so we'll have that coming up here soon.
As a staff, some of the things we've talked about already include needing to get better results at home this season compared to last.
In previous years we've seemed to struggle more on the road and done quite well at home, but last year was the opposite.
With the balance of our schedule this year - 10 home games, seven on the road - we still need to be able to maintain that success on the road but we have to do a better job of making sure we get results at home. Especially in conference, with four home games out of seven, we have to make sure we rack up points at home.
We've got a tough schedule. If you look at our non-conference schedule with games, at Cal, at Pacific, at USF, those are all NCAA tournament teams from last year. And then we also play at Oregon State, a Pac-12 team, and at Pacific, a strong WCC team. All of those on the road are going to be a huge challenge for us. But at the same time we need to find a way to get results in those games and give us confidence going into Big West play.
HM: You are entering you're 30th season with Sacramento State and are the longest tenured coach for any of the 21 intercollegiate programs here at Sacramento State. Talk a little about why you've chosen to make Sacramento State your home.
I very much remember my first few years here. I was still just a young coach and there were even a few players that were older than me. But I got my chance, was in the right place at the right time, and had the opportunity to learn in the trenches along the way.
In a lot of ways, I still feel like that young coach. Looking back on it, it's like "Man, I've really been here for 30 years." I know I'm sometimes viewed from the outside as the old guy that's been here a long time but I don't feel that way on the inside. I still have the fire and energy and still get excited at the start of every season.
It's been amazing to watch all the things that have gone on here. We were a Division II, non-scholarship program when I started. It was my third year here that we made the jump to Division I and, even though we were still non-scholarship and didn't have a conference, that was a big exciting moment.
Things continued when just a few years later we got into the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF), a conference made of teams from the Pac-12 and the WAC. Suddenly we were playing teams like Washington and UCLA and Air Force and Stanford and Cal, all in the same conference.
We got a little bit of scholarship money and a new facility and started to bring in new players and that was exciting. Then the jump to the competitive Big West was another big move.
All of these kinds of things just keep you going, keep the excitement and the passion burning. It never gets stale. Every year is a new year, another exciting year, and I'm ready to keep this thing rolling.