CLAREMORE — With a large group of experienced returning players, the Rogers State men's soccer team will look to capitalize on its added depth to find success in the 2018 season.

The Hillcats put together their third-straight winning season in 2017, finishing 8-7-3 and placing second in the North Division of the Heartland Conference. RSU brings back 20 players from the 2017 team, including 13 Hillcats who made starts in the 2017 campaign.

"We have so many returning players," head coach Derek Larkin said. "We have 20 players returning and that's more than we've ever had. Having that experience and having those guys back from last year and coming off a great spring where everyone was coming together, any coach would be excited about that kind of depth, experience and leadership. It leads us to believe we have the chance to be really good this year."

The Hillcats brought back loads of experience at the back. Seniors Ellis Ashworth and Jeremy Hoelzer anchor the defense. Hoelzer was the only Cat to start all 18 games in 2017, playing a team-high 1,564 minutes. Ashworth, an All-Heartland Conference selection in 2017, started in 17 games at the back and played 1,548 minutes, ranking second on the team to Hoelzer. Two sophomores, Michael Turner and Logan Smith look to step into larger roles on the backline this season.

"For the first time we have depth at every position," Larkin said. "We have a four to five man rotation across the back. Ellis Ashworth is coming off a big all-conference year. He had a great summer, and he's fit for his senior year. Jeremy Hoelzer had an outstanding year last year so we have two seniors on the back line. A younger player who played a lot last year in Mike Turner is a big 6-6 guy in the back. He shores up the line. Logan Smith is another player who had a great spring and is coming back for his sophomore year on defense."

On the other end of the pitch, the navy and red brings back more than 70 percent of its goal production from a year ago, including their top seven goal scorers. Senior captain Jake Simpson, a two-time All-Heartland Conference selection, is back as the top goal scorer as he netted five goals in 2017. Simpson has 12 career goals in the navy and red with 31 starts. Joining Simpson up top will be junior Jordan Watson, another All-Heartland Conference pick in 2017. Watson ranked second on the team with three goals and added two assists. Senior Kevin Kwarteng adds another playmaker to the Hillcat lineup as he totaled a team-high four assists in 2017.

RSU put together one of the toughest nonconference schedules in NCAA Division II. RSU opens with a Drury team that advanced to the NCAA Division II National Tournament quarterfinals in 2016 and then hosts Great American Conference champion Ouachita Baptist. After the two home contests, the Cats travel to in-state rival and No. 17-ranked Northeastern State, a 2017 NCAA National Tournament quarterfinalist, and the navy and red finishes the nonconference slate with No. 3-ranked and 2017 NCAA National Tournament semifinalist Rockhurst. The Hillcats jump into league play with No. 5 Midwestern State to total contests against three straight ranked opponents.

The 12-team Heartland Conference looks to have strong depth once again in 2018. Midwestern State won the league in 2017 with a 12-0-2 mark and advanced all the way to the NCAA National Tournament quarterfinals. MSU, St. Edward's and West Texas A&M won the three divisions in the 2017 season. RSU and WTAMU bring back two of the most experienced squads this year. The league shows added strength from the top all the way to the bottom.

"Honestly anybody and everybody can compete at a high level in the Heartland Conference," Larkin said. "West Texas along with us bring back the most players. West Texas finished third and returns back loads of players so they will fight for the championship. Texas A&M International, UTPB and Newman were good last year, and St. Mary's had a great run last year. Anyone can win in this league. It would not surprise me to see teams that finish toward the bottom, win some league games. If you're not ready, teams will sneak up and beat you. You better come ready to play."

The Hillcats open the 2018 season on Aug. 30 against Drury. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Soldier Field with live video streaming and live stats available on the Hillcat Network.

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