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Aug 27, 2008

White's quest for two among the stories to follow

In just a matter of days, the men's college soccer regular season will be upon us.

Teams that spent the offseason stewing over early tournament exits (Boston College perhaps?) will get a clean slate, and teams that failed to make the tournament suddenly have another shot.

It also means that coachspeak will resume with coaches telling you that you can't really know anything about a team until at least October -- because it takes a while to figure out what all your players bring to the table, to get everyone on the same page and all that.

But if that's truly the case, then why even bother watching the first half of the season? A couple of reasons. One, you can usually tell how good a team is going to be before you hit the magic October mark, and two, even if you buy into the wait-and-see logic, there are plenty of story lines to hold you over until then.

Here's a look at four of them:

1. Will Wake Forest repeat?

Every season starts out with the same burning question: Will last year's champ defend its title? The past few years, the answer has been, "No." Wake Forest stands as good a chance of repeating as any team in recent memory.

Coach Jay Vidovich enters the season with his core group intact and young players ready to step up to the challenge of keeping the crown. One thing that can be said for the Demon Deacons is that they didn't sneak up on anyone last year (a la UC Santa Barbara in 2006) and they still managed to pull through with everyone gunning for them.

2. John Kerr takes over at Duke

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For the first time in 30 years, Duke will be led by a John whose last name isn't Rennie. Kerr returns to his alma mater following a successful stint at Harvard, where he went 81-57-13 over nine seasons. Kerr knows what it takes to steer a team that needs to excel at both the top academic and athletic levels, but competing in the Atlantic Coast Conference is going to be much more challenging than the Ivy League (with all due respect to the Ivies).

Of course, Kerr knows all that. He was an integral part of the Blue Devils' 1986 national championship team and took home the Hermann Trophy that year. However, while his history with the program ensures Kerr will have fans coming in, it will be his performance in the present that dictates whether he's able to keep them.

3. Can UMass keep rolling?

There's nothing like rooting for an underdog. That's why last season's College Cup was fun to watch. Ohio State surprised the masses and made it to the final, but UMass helped pave the way. The Minutemen upset Boston College in the second round of the NCAA tournament and powered their way through their bracket until falling to the Buckeyes in the College Cup semifinals.

While it's not a lock the Minutemen will be able to repeat their surprising success (they're tabbed to finish second in the Atlantic 10 behind St. Louis), it shouldn't seem completely out of the question. The team returns six of its top seven scorers and goalkeeper Zack Simmons, and will come out of the gate knowing it can contend with the nation's best. Whether the Minutemen can convert that into wins is something they will need to prove early.

O'Brian White goes for two

Connecticut's O'Brian White entered the Hermann Trophy ceremony with his mind already made up to return for his senior season, but few would have faulted him had he changed it and opted to throw his name into the MLS draft mix after winning the prestigious award. Instead, White returns to help lead the Huskies in their quest to convert their regular-season rankings (the team has been ranked among the best in the nation the past two seasons) into postseason success, something they've so far been unable to achieve.

Minus Julius James (who graduated and is now in the pros), White will be expected to step into an even bigger role for UConn -- if that's possible. With Patrick Nyarko also playing professionally after opting to forego his senior season at Virginia Tech, White's biggest potential challenger for a Hermann repeat is no longer a threat. That doesn't make the award a lock, but it's definitely White's to lose.

While these leads should help tide you over through the first few games, the real exciting story lines of 2008 have yet to emerge. It's another reason to keep watching.

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

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