ROCK HILL, S.C. — The Railsplitters were selected to finish fifth in the 2015 South Atlantic Conference Men’s Soccer preseason coaches’ poll, while seniors Leonardo da Silva (Itajubá, Brazil) and Nathaniel Johnson (London, England) were voted to the preseason All-SAC squad, it was unveiled by officials with the league office on Tuesday.
Lincoln Memorial opened the 2014 campaign with four consecutive wins and a draw, leaping as high as No. 20 in the NSCAA national rankings. The Railsplitters stalled after that nearly flawless start going 3-6-2 over their final 11 matches and finishing tied for seventh in the final South Atlantic Conference standings.
The Railsplitters’ season ended in a 1-0 loss to Mars Hill in the quarterfinal round of the SAC Championship. It was the program’s lowest win total (7) and league finish since joining the SAC in 2007.
Despite returning 79.2 percent of their goal scoring and 16 letter winners, the Railsplitters weren’t projected to fare much better in 2015, as they were slotted for a fifth-place finish in the preseason coaches’ poll with 94 total points.
“We don’t talk about preseason rankings,” said LMU head men’s soccer coach Helio D’Anna. “The only thing I can say for certain is that our conference is so balanced that anybody can beat anybody on any given day. I honestly feel that there are 10 true contenders in the SAC this year.”
Defending SAC regular season champion Wingate was the near consensus pick to repeat in 2015, eliciting 10 of the 12 first-place votes with 131 total points. Carson-Newman was second with 109 points, while Mars Hill was tabbed for a third-place run with 106 points.
Reigning SAC tournament champion Tusculum garnered the last two first-place votes and edged the Railsplitters by just four points for the No. 4 spot in the coaches’ poll. No. 6 Lenoir-Rhyne rounded out the upper half of the poll with 87 tallies.
The bottom half of the poll – which was voted on by the league’s 12 head coaches – featured No. 7 Anderson (70), No. 8 Queens (58), No. 9 Coker (57), No. 10 Catawba (50), No. 11 Newberry (36) and No. 12 Brevard (23).
In conjunction with the coaches’ poll results, the league office also revealed the 26 preseason All-SAC selections. Senior forward Leonardo da Silva was named to the first team, while fellow senior defender Nathaniel Johnson was tagged with second team honors.
A two-time All-SAC recipient and a 2014 NSCAA All-Southeast Region honoree, da Silva battled through numerous nagging injuries to lead the Railsplitters with six goals last season. In just 12 starts and 807 total minutes, the Itajubá, Brazil native registered 40 shots and 14 shots on goal. Four of da Silva’s six goals were scored in Lincoln Memorial’s first three matches of the season, as he led the Railsplitters to wins against Alabama-Huntsville, Shorter and Coker.
The injury bug bit da Silva continually after that red hot start, and the Railsplitters’ offense suffered with their wounded star player. After scoring 12 goals in their first seven matches, the Railsplitters found the net just nine times over their final nine outings.
“Leo wants the pressure,” D’Anna said. “He wants to call the attention of other teams. But being a senior, he’s smart enough now to not force the issue. He sees a double team or a triple team and he’s smart enough to know to put somebody else in front of the goal, and I like that.”
Da Silva has made 32 career appearances in the Blue and Gray, scoring 11 goals and dishing out three assists over that span. The 5-10 forward is fourth in program history with 3.44 shots per match, while his five career game-winning goals are tied for 12th all-time. He has amassed 2,322 minutes on the pitch with 110 shots and 38 shots on frame.
Johnson – a 2014 All-SAC second team selection – is coming off of his best season in Harrogate, as the London, England native scored two goals and led the Railsplitters’ stingy defensive unit.
Johnson, who accounted for the most non-goalie minutes on the team last season with 1,480, helped Lincoln Memorial hold opponents to 1.07 goals per match and 18 goals total, the lowest mark in the SAC. The Johnson-led defense ranked 49th in the nation in goals against average.
“He’s the senior, veteran defender surrounded by a bunch of young guys,” said D’Anna. “Nate has the responsibility of leading and guiding these guys. I really liked how he handled himself in our first scrimmage. He put his hand on the young guys’ shoulders and helped them through everything. He’s not an abrasive leader and I feel like that’s really important for us.”
Johnson tripled his career goal total by striking in a 2-0 win over North Georgia and a 1-1 draw against Tusculum. The 6-0 defender is currently 17th in program history with 3,881 minutes played. He has made 47 career appearances, fired off 20 shots and notched one assist.
The Railsplitters face West Alabama in the season opener on Sept. 4 in Montevallo, Alabama. South Atlantic Conference play begins on Sept. 16 as the Railsplitters travel to Brevard.