Out of disappointment grew opportunity for the University of Nebraska at Omaha men’s soccer program.
While the conversion of Caniglia Field from football stadium to soccer pitch is still ongoing and at least a few weeks away from completion, the Mavericks instead are looking forward to initiating the South Omaha Classic.
It’s an exhibition against defending Big Ten co-champion Penn State, set for 7 p.m. Saturday at Omaha South’s Collin Stadium.
“It’s a beautiful stadium that was built there,” UNO coach Jason Mims said. “And regardless of our situation here, we want to do something down there every year. I hope this is the start of something special.”
It also serves as a homecoming for sophomore Chava Garcia, third on the team in scoring last year with 11 points (4 goals, 3 assists) and tied for second in goals.
Garcia, who made the Summit League’s all-newcomer team last season, starred for the Packers before joining the UNO program.
“There are a lot of old memories and I’m really excited to play there,” Garcia said. “I think the atmosphere is going to be good. People will be excited.”
There’s also excitement in bringing Penn State to Omaha. The Nittany Lions are coached by long-time Creighton coach Bob Warming. Mims played three years for Warming at St. Louis, then spent more than a decade as Warming’s assistant at St. Louis, Creighton and Penn State.
“Bob knows what it means to Omaha,” Mims said. “He’s not going to get to play here (at Caniglia Field), but it gives us an excuse to get them to come back in two years to play at the new (Caniglia Field) stadium.”
Warming — who was 190-61-34 coaching Creighton from 1990 through 1994 and again from 2001 through 2009 — led Penn State to a 9-5-3 record last season, including 3-1-2 in the Big Ten for a share of the conference title with Northwestern. Both finished ahead of national champion Indiana in league play.
“For UNO to be able to get the Big Ten champions here, I think it’s incredible,” Mims said.
The Mavs return much of their firepower from last season, when they went 5-10-1 in their second season and tied for fourth in their first trip through the Summit League at 3-3-1.
Junior Vance Rookwood (5 goals, 2 assists), Garcia, senior Craig Buettner (3 goals, 2 assists) and sophomore Logan Mendez (2 goals, 4 assists) are the top returnees.
Matt Grosey is back in goal after going 5-9-1 with a 1.70 goals-against average last season.
“We probably scored more goals than I thought we would, and that’s the hardest thing to do in soccer,” Mims said. “Defensively, we were disappointed in how many goals we gave up, and we want to cut down that amount.”
Added experience will help, and Mendez has looked good since changing positions and moving to an outside back.
Leading scorer Giovanni Giattino (4 goals, 7 assists) transferred, as did Devin Diego (3 goals, 2 assists). Defenders Houston Hoffman and Mo Salama left the program. However, UNO returns 10 players considered starters and has an 11-player recruiting class.
Freshman forwards Mark Moulton of Omaha Creighton Prep and Christian Garcia of El Paso, Texas, will help stretch the field with their speed, allowing the Mavs the opportunity for more possession time in the midfield.
“We have a lot of new players coming in, a lot of exciting players,” Mims said. “We want to have a brand of soccer that’s entertaining. As much as I want to win, we need to develop players and be entertaining.
“We can’t go to the conference tournament this year (ineligible as part of the Division I transition until 2015), we can’t go to the NCAA tournament, we can’t go to the final four next year, so for us it’s important to develop a style and develop a culture. When people come here, they’ll realize what they’re going to see when they watch the UNO men’s team play. ... That’s what we want to do.”
After getting the program off the ground in 2011, then moving into full-time Division I play last year, the Mavs get a chance to put their product on display more often this year.
After playing eight regular-season home games the first two years, UNO plays 10 home games this year — not counting the exhibition with Penn State and an Aug. 23 exhibition at Creighton.
“This many home games, we’re fortunate,” Mims said.