(Posted February 28, 2006)

Huntingdon, PA - Last year, in his first season as head coach, Bobby Pennington guided the Eagles to a program-record six wins in 2005. Despite the early success, Juniata is still seen as an underdog in the conference. The Eagles are confident, however, that they can use last season as a stepping stone towards bigger things this season, and their perception as an underdog will only help them get there.

"I think in general, nobody but the people who are a part of the team know how good we are," Pennington said. "I think we are definitely going to catch some teams off guard."

The second-year coach already has his team aiming high.

"I think my goal as a coach and their goal as players, which I think it starting to get ingrained in their heads, is to win the conference," Pennington said. "I think if we play well and all things fall in place that would be the goal."

To do so, Pennington will be relying on an almost completely revamped lineup from a year ago. Four new faces will likely fill the top six spots. Neil Eicher (Altoona/Altoona), who played the No. 1 position two years ago, returns from a year of study abroad and will resume his spot atop the lineup. Juniata will be looking to the senior for much more than a name in the number one spot, however. Eicher will be looked at to provide leadership both on and off the court.

"Neil brings a lot of talent to the court in each match, and he also has the mindset to compete against the top players," Pennington said. "He's also really stepped into a big role as a leader for the team, which should be critical for our success."

Having Eicher in the one-spot affords the Eagles much more freedom throughout the rest of its lineup. Last season, in his absence, each player had to play up at least one spot. This season, every player can play in a position more fitting to them. This should translate into more success from the top to bottom.

Other new faces likely to crack the top six are a pair of freshman and a senior joining the team for the first time. First year players John Skoner (Central Catholic/Pittsburgh) and Ryan Navarro (Bishop Guilfoyle/Altoona) will join senior Robert Bowser (Dallastown/York), who joins the team after four year's of playing soccer at Juniata.

Brandon Long (Lebanon/Lebanon) and Brian Sykes (Gateway Regional/Woodburry Heights, N.J.) are the only players expected to return to regular spots in the singles lineup. It is a testament to Juniata's new depth that Long - last year's number one - will likely be slated somewhere around the four spot.

"We have an incredible amount of depth this year, much more so than last year," Pennington said. "We have 12 guys on the team and all 12 can play. We're expecting several changes in the top six, which is enormous, including a new number one and a new number two. The depth has helped raise the level of play in practice, which should also make us better in competition."
With that increased competitiveness, and the overhauled starting lineup, the team should be able to enter each match with a realistic belief that they can come away with a victory, which has not necessarily been the case in previous seasons.

"The thought of being able to compete with the top teams in the conference will be a little new for us," Pennington said. "Last year, we just weren't in the same league or class with some of the teams in the conference, and the results showed that. The rest of the matches, I thought we had a chance. This year�looking at our conference, you don't want to become over-confident and you don't want to jinx yourself, but we definitely have a good chance to compete at the top of the conference."

Juniata's depth also allows for a beefed-up schedule. The Eagles play 17 matches this season, compared with just 11 last season. While the Eagles were just a point away from being 6-1 on its home court last season, they struggled on the road. To make a serious run at a conference championship, that's something they will have to improve.

"That's one thing we have to work on is going to a foreign site, getting used to their courts and kind of settling down," Pennington said. "We were very comfortable at home, but adjusting away from home is going to be critical for us."

The team's long preseason is now nearly done, and Eagles will have a chance to begin proving that the increased optimism is justified when they begin the season with a trip to South Carolina over Spring Break. The chance to get out and begin competing is a welcome change for both the players and the coach.

"I'm very optimistic," Pennington said. "It's hard for me right now not to get too excited and pace myself because we can win it, I really think we can. I'm really anxious now because they put a lot of practice time in and (we're) ready to play matches now. Practice time is over."


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Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.