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May 28, 2007

Strong haul has Friars thinking positive

Providence coach Chaka Daley's goal for his Big East program this season seems basic enough -- to remain consistent.

After making that assertion, Daley paused, reflecting on the simplicity of the words while realizing the complexity of the task.

"I don't know if it's a lofty goal, but to remain consistent in the Big East is always a difficult process," Daley said, summing up what he and likely 15 other coaches feel.

In the 16-team super conference, staying among the top is tough, to say the least. As with every conference, the Big East has its perennial powerhouses. But in such a sizable conference, there's also more room for a new power to emerge. That's where recruiting comes in, and Providence knows that as well as any other conference team.

Daley has seen his staff's efforts pay off, and he's hoping his newest crop can carry on that tradition. After breaking a tournament drought that lasted more than two decades in 2005, the Friars made program history last season when they received their second straight NCAA Tournament berth. Coach Daley and his staff have set out to bring together the necessary pieces to make it three in a row this fall.

Providence will field seven new players -- highlighted by a trio of high-caliber talent. Delaware player of the year and All-American Matt Marcin and U-17 Canadian national team captain Michael Pereira will be two huge additions to the midfield that should make an immediate impact. The same holds true for forward Alex Redding, who was an All-American in 2005 and spent the last year in prep school.

The Friars have loaded up even further in the midfield with David Datilus and midfielder/defender Nick Cianci. Adding depth elsewhere will be defender Nathan McKeever and goalkeeper Jhojan Obando.

And Daley is experiencing the recruiting perks that come with an NCAA berth.

"It definitely has opened our doors to a higher-caliber player," Daley said. "Are we looking at the same players as Connecticut or Notre Dame? I don't know, but I think we're getting closer. It's definitely opened the door to some high-quality players that we're very excited about."

Several players on the current roster and the entire list of 2007 commitments can be considered a testament to that. For teams without national titles and Final Four appearances, the key to coming out on top when it comes to recruiting is setting the program apart from a dozen others.

"Being such a small school, it's a unique situation," Daley explained. "We don't have the bells and whistles of a football school. We try to find a combination student-athlete … [We want] guys that are confident about their abilities and want to make a difference, that can say, 'We created a culture of soccer at Providence.' We look for players that will have an impact on our team and the Big East."

"And," the coach added, "we hope that their learning curve is not that long because we feel that they can impact the group immediately, especially in the midfield."

Here's a look some of the new faces the Friars will come up against in the Big East's "Blue" division:

Notre Dame -- Perhaps no team in the nation has more football "bells and whistles," but the success of the Irish soccer program does far more than "Touchdown Jesus" with regard to attracting top talent.

The team reached new heights last season and is looking to keep its trajectory heading upward. The team will have to fill the holes left by midfielders Nate Norman and Greg Dalby, both of whom were taken in the second round of the MLS draft.

All told, Notre Dame graduated five players from its Elite Eight squad -- three midfielders (including Norman and Dalby), a forward and a defender. Coach Bobby Clark has restocked accordingly, bringing in three midfielders in Matt Armstrong, Jeb Brovsky and Greg Klazura. The Irish also will add midfielder/forward Josh Thiermann, forward Steven Perry and defender Bilal Duckett.

Of the accomplished bunch, Thiermann, Armstrong and Perry are a trio of All-Americans that should help keep the Irish in the conference's top tier.

West Virginia -- The Mountaineers finished last season a top-10 team. Despite losing a pair of All-Americans (forward Jarrod Smith and goalkeeper Nick Noble), the coaching staff felt the team already had in place the major parts it will need to stay among the nation's best. Coach Marlon LeBlanc signed just three new players to national letters of intent -- tied with Louisville for fewest in the Big East.

The group includes a pair of regional All-American forwards, Paul Paradise and Dan Hagey, along with ODP Region III midfielder Tuan Doan.

LeBlanc has said he's especially happy with this class considering the staff got off to a late start with recruiting. However, with the prominence of the Big East, West Virginia's having been ranked as high as No. 5 in final regular-season polls in 2006 and the fact that LeBlanc received national coach of the year honors, it's difficult to believe the Mountaineers were hard-pressed to find elite players willing to commit.

Connecticut -- Coach Ray Reid is awaiting one final commitment before releasing the final list of incoming Huskies, but it is believed UConn will have six or seven new faces on its roster this fall. Although midfielder Kevin Burns was picked up in the MLS supplemental draft, the team hasn't really lost much in terms of talent as its postseason award winners are returning.

Maria Burns covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.