As the Grand Valley State men's club soccer team walked off the field for the final time last season, a strong feeling of déjà vu set in. Their season had just ended the same way it did one year prior—penalty shoot-outs and brutal disappointment.
The Lakers, who finished the season with an 11-3-2 record, were eliminated from the Midwest Alliance Soccer Conference (MASC) regional tournament by losing in a shootout for the second year in a row. GVSU ultimately fell in their third tournament game, to Loyola University-Chicago.
"It was a devastating feeling," junior goalkeeper and team captain Alex Pastor said. "We were on such a high after beating Cincinnati, a top team in the nation and the team we lost to the same way a year before. Loyola was a game where we blew way too many chances and was especially disappointing because we knew we were better than how we played."
The team enters the 2016-17 season recharged, led again by coach Jeff Crooks.
Regarding the identity of the roster this season, it is heavy on returning players.
"There aren't any freshmen that will make or break our season," Crooks said. "We're going to win or lose depending on our juniors and seniors. We have a really strong group of older guys, and if they play well we'll be in good shape, and if they don't, we're in trouble."
GVSU played its first regular season game Saturday, Sept. 10, falling to the Purdue Boilermakers 1-0.
The biggest games still on the schedule for GVSU are Michigan State, Notre Dame, and the University of Michigan, which GVSU plays in their final game of the season.
GVSU has 44 teams in its conference with four 11-team divisions. The top three teams in each division qualify for playoffs.
Crooks, whose sole focus is winning games, has an early feel for the team's strengths and weakenesses.
"Our strengths are that we're a very quick team that has a lot of pace, as well as having a lot of players that are really good with the ball," Crooks said. "My starting 11 could probably play at any school other than a Division I school, they're all that good."
As far as weaknesses, Crooks believes the biggest obstacle will come down to roster depth.
"A couple players didn't return for this season that we hoped would play," Crooks said. "When we get to playoff time and we have three games in four or five days, that's where we may have some issues with depth."
While there aren't many new players on the team this season, Pastor is excited to play with one particular addition to the team.
"The guy I'm most excited about is sophomore Danny Brott," Pastor said. "He tried out last year but decided he didn't want to play. He has the potential to be our starting forward, and he could definitely put a couple balls in the back of the net for us this year and help us out."
Junior midfielder and team captain Griffon Dean is looking forward to avenging the endings of the past two seasons.
"How our season ended last year sucked," he said. "It was frustrating because not only did we lose to a team we were better than, but if we won we would have went to nationals after that game."
Dean and the Lakers won't let the past hold them back as they are more motivated than ever to reach the national championship.
"Last year I came into the season not as prepared because I didn't do much to prepare over the summer," Dean said. "This year I played over the summer and kept myself in shape and I know the rest of the team has also."
Dean credits Crooks for pushing the team to achieve their goals every season.
"Many teams in club soccer actually don't have a coach, and we're one of the teams that has one," Dean said. "(Crooks) has been doing this for 15-plus years now and has a lot of experience. He's a really great coach and a really great guy. He motivates us to be better on a daily basis."
Short-term goals for the season include finishing in the top three of the division and cracking the top four of the entire conference.
Their primary goal is obvious—winning the national championship, which GVSU's men's soccer team has yet to do. The Lakers believe this is their year, and they will be using two years' worth of heartbreak and disappointment as motivation to get to the top.