SIOUX CITY -- Last fall was the season where the Morningside men's soccer team finally broke through.
The Mustangs have been close to making it to the NAIA national tournament in the past, falling just short in either the Great Plains Athletic Conference standings or in the conference tournament.
But last season the Mustangs were able to make history. Morningside finished second in the conference to Hastings and then finished as the GPAC tournament runner-ups, earning a spot in the NAIA national tournament for the first time in the program's history.
After last season's finish, there are some high expectations coming into the 2019 season. Morningside was picked second in the GPAC preseason poll, right behind Hastings, which was ranked 16th in the final NAIA poll last season.
"I think last year with us making it all the way to the national tournament, it really gave us some hope and it really encouraged us to be better and to succeed again and go further in the national tournament," Morningside junior forward and Bishop Heelan graduate Austin Lingle said. "Hopefully, we are going to meet our goals that we set in the preseason."
While the Mustangs do have some holes to fill in goal and on defense, Morningside returns its top three starters from the 13-7-1 squad and brings in one of its top recruiting classes, according to coach Tom Maxon.
The goals are what most teams in Morningside's position would set - have a winning season, try and win the GPAC title and make it back to the national tournament. Another goal is if the team does make it back to nationals, to try and make it a little deeper in postseason play.
The Mustangs lost to Oklahoma Wesleyan 5-2 in the first round of the national tournament.
"Last year, a lot of people probably wouldn't have thought we would've made it to the national tournament. We didn't start off strong but we turned it around," Lingle said. "Everybody's working hard. We just need to continue working hard and we will see where this season brings us."
There's little room for error in a tight GPAC race, though since seven teams finished with at least six conference wins last season. Morningside finished with a 9-2 GPAC record and four of those wins were by one goal. They had won 1-0 win over Briar Cliff in the GPAC semifinals.
So the Mustangs will be tested in each GPAC match.
"The GPAC is a tough conference. Every team out there that was within striking distance, those teams are going to be great and they are a couple of players from being in or out," Maxon said. "We hope to be as strong as we were last year and that we can weather the GPAC games. The expectation would be to try and put ourselves back in the GPAC championship game."
Morningside went 3-2-1 in the six games before GPAC play started last season and then lost only four more matches the rest of the season.
Maxon put together another challenging non-conference schedule this season, starting with a game against Bellevue on Thursday to open the 2019 campaign. Bellevue went 18-2-2 last season and beat Morningside 5-0.
"We have six, seven games to play around with a little bit to find ourselves," Maxon said. "Last year during those games, we found ourselves and really improved and by the time the GPAC games came around, we were on a roll."
Lingle, a junior, led the team in scoring last season with 12 goals and one assist. Sophomore Moritz Lusch followed with six goals and nine assists for 21 points and sophomore Okan Goelge added seven goals.
In 13 of the Mustangs 21 matches last season, they scored at least two goals. Lingle expects the Mustangs to be dangerous offensively again with so many scorers back this season.
"I think one of our biggest scoring specialties are setpieces - free kicks and corner kicks," Lingle said. "This team does a great job of finishing on those setpieces. To me, scoring this year isn't one of my biggest worries. We've lost quite a bit of defenders and midfielders but we have quite a bit of talent to replace those people.
"I think some freshmen are going to come up big, some returners are going to come up big and I think we are going to have a pretty solid year."
One of the biggest spots Morningside has to fill is in goal with Tim Erdmann graduating. Pedro Fernandez, Tobias Sadler and Bjarne Huth are all battling for the starting spot.
"Pedro is a senior that's been solid the whole way. He's paid his dues and has done his time and is the most experienced and savvy of the group," Maxon said. "Toby is just as talented and more of a prototypical goaltender. Bjarne is a freshman and talent-wise is as good as anyone we've ever brought in here. How long it takes him to adjust? We will see.
"Right now I would it's a fairly even competition with Pedro having a slight edge for right now."