By Teddy Rydquist
Leader Staff Writer
Under the guidance of first-year head coach Adam Bican, the 2020 Oxford Wildcats boys’ soccer team captured the Oakland Activities Association (OAA) White Division title, the program’s first league championship since 2015.
Standout senior goalkeeper Tristan Bennett was quite possibly the biggest piece in the team’s success, posting three shutouts. He recently announced he will continue his career at the collegiate level, signing with the Mars Hill University Mountain Lions in North Carolina.
A National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II institution, Mars Hill belongs to the South Atlantic Conference (SAC) which consists of 14 member schools in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
Starting in net for the Wildcats since his freshman year, Bennett earned All-OAA and All-Region status all four seasons and took home third-team All-State honors as a senior, cementing his place in Oxford soccer history.
On top of this, he played two years of varsity basketball for Steve Laidlaw, and — in this journalist’s opinion — was the 2020-21 team’s best defensive player, frequently outrebounding opposing players who had the edge in the height department through body positioning, effort, and hustle.
Playing collegiately had been a goal of Bennett’s and finding a school outside the state of Michigan was an important factor, as he has a strong desire to see other areas of the United States in his youth.
Mars Hill is coached by Gregg Munn, a former Mountain Lion captain and 2014 graduate of the school. During our meeting on July 15, Bennett shared how this connection with a program almost 650 miles away came to be.
“There’s a website, the NCAA recruiting website, it really helps people out,” Bennett said. “You can send e-mails on there and upload clips, and Mars Hill texted me one time and asked if I was talking to anybody. They were one of only a couple of schools at the higher level that really wanted me because a lot of the other ones were filled up. So, we went and visited, I like the coach a lot and the area, mostly, so I knew I liked it there. They said they really wanted me, and I could fight for the spot right away.”
The opportunity to compete for immediate playing time was one of the factors that drew Bennett to the Mountain Lions, and he made sure to thank his parents, Lesa and Vance, for all they have done to afford him this chance.
Fans of most Wildcat athletic programs would likely recognize Lesa, as she frequently worked the ticket gate at football, lacrosse and soccer games during her son’s time in high school.
“My parents, for sure, they did a lot of the recruiting, helped me out,” he said. “(Coach) Bican texted a couple of coaches he knew, he did what he needed to.”
Bennett is scheduled to move to Mars Hill and begin his life as a college student on Aug. 12. He has not decided what he will major in yet but is considering a degree in the field of education.
In addition to Bennett, Oxford’s 2020 season marked the end of the high school career of nine other members of the Class of 2021 including the team’s leading scorer, Zach Townsend, who will be playing collegiately in the Horizon League for the Oakland University Golden Grizzlies.
Looking ahead to the upcoming season, the team is set to return some promising players, such as Bennett’s projected successor in net, senior Jack Brown, and sophomores Cooper Caufman and Diego Medel, both of whom played for Bican as freshmen, gaining valuable experience.
Knowing the program as well as anyone, Bennett offered fans a glimpse of what to expect from some of these returning players this fall.
“Even when Jack Brown was a freshman, I knew he was going to be good,” he said. “I was happy he was with me because I need somebody with me to keep getting better. I could tell he was good, so I always played with him, and he will be good. He’s got the body, for sure, he’s tall now, taller than me, so I definitely think he’ll be good.
“(Diego Medel) has gotten so much better, he’s gotten even bigger, height and added some muscle. Him and Cooper (Caufman) – I still practice with them, practiced today – and Cooper has gotten so much better. He’s going to be really good this year, both those guys, it’s like they’ve grown into their bodies.”
Fellow seniors Dane Knop and Kade Rushlow also figure to play significant roles for the Wildcats in 2021.
Per their university website, Mars Hill’s enrollment for the fall 2020 semester featured 949 traditional undergraduate students, split almost evenly between 468 men (49.3 percent) and 481 women (50.7 percent).
Over 50 percent of these undergraduates are student-athletes for one of the school’s 20 athletic programs, meaning Bennett will be surrounded by young men and women who come from similar backgrounds and share his athletic interests.
Once he arrives, Bennett’s soccer activities will begin right away, as the Mountain Lions are slated to open their 2021 season on Aug. 21 with a road exhibition contest against the North Carolina-Asheville Bulldogs. On Sept. 2, Mars Hill will host the Charleston (West Virginia) Golden Eagles for their first game.
By Teddy Rydquist