The Tigers faced the nation's best last November.
And after a 2-0 loss to eventual national champion Tyler Junior College (Texas) at the NJCAA National Tournament, the Marshalltown Community College men's soccer team came away with two areas it must improve to get back there.
Overcome by the Apaches' physicality and depth, the Tigers addressed both facets this offseason after a fifth-place finish at the national tourney.
Though MCC, ranked 15th in the NJCAA preseason poll, lost nine sophomores to graduation, Tigers coach Rafael Martinez believes his squad enters the 2013 campaign deeper and stronger than before.
"The most important thing we have this year is more depth," said Martinez, who enters his fourth season at the helm with a mark of 32-20-3.
"We have more players who can step onto the field and make an impact, which is really what we're looking for."
Depth was apparent in every squad at the tournament last fall, though Tyler - which claimed its third title in the last four years - exemplified it at an unparalleled level.
"They had a lot of players that could compete and the level didn't drop, the intensity didn't drop," said Martinez of the 2012 national champs. "That's something we're looking for in our players this year. ... We've tried to recruit guys who take care of the ball very well under pressure and also some guys to increase the intensity and physicality of the game."
Martinez brings back eight players from the school's first postseason run since 2007 and a total of nine sophomores with the addition of Bill Baye, who redshirted last year. Baye is one of three captains joining Alex Galvan and Ralph Duopo as they try to offset the loss of all-region first team selections Javier Lopez (a third-team All-American) and Bruno Liozzi. MCC also must replace second team honorees Joao de Olivera and Alex Bello along with all-region honorable mention Tony Kaune.
Second-year players Andrew Valett and Roberto Velazquez have made major strides from last year's 14-6-2 campaign and will play expanded roles this year, though the Tigers will call upon bigger contributions from all of their sophomores said Martinez.
Joining the established veterans is a 14-member freshman class that will aid a revamped defense, including a pair of new goalkeepers in Julian Pena and Andrew Waterfall still vying for the starting job.
Jaime Agujetas of Spain will be a force at the center of the Tigers' back line, while fellow Spaniard Celes Vilar and Anoka-Ramsey CC (MN) transfer Hernan Lopez bolster the midfield.
"They are making a great impact in the middle because they have very good talent to possess the ball and they understand the game well - so tactically they're helping a lot," said Martinez, who also recruited Spain native Juan Carillo for his front line.
"(Juan) is a very technical and fast player who will test a lot of defenses."
Last year's Tiger squad developed a cohesion and chemistry through many matches against top-flight talent. This year's unit will find similar opportunities early and often.
MCC hosts 2011 national champion Cloud County CC Aug. 28, before heading to the always-competitive Minnesota Kickoff Classic Aug. 30-31. The Tigers open Iowa Community College Athletic Conference play against No. 6 ranked Iowa Western in Council Bluffs Sept. 11. MCC defeated the Reivers, 1-0, in the Region XI Championship last year to punch its ticket for nationals. Fellow ICCAC foe Iowa Central also received votes in the preseason poll and will visit Marshalltown Oct. 1.
Martinez and the Tigers are eager to see how they match up with the best - knowing full well many will be gunning for them after last fall's success.
"It's a perfect scenario for us to evaluate how we're doing against those big teams again this year," said Martinez, who expects to substitute players more often this season.
"I told the players, 'After what we did last year, we obviously have a target on us but I don't have a problem with that. I look forward to the challenge.'"
While the Tigers boast a deeper and more versatile roster, the challenge lies in making all the pieces mesh as well as they did for the 2012 club. Like last year, Martinez has established a highly competitive environment with his new squad from day one.
"We've seen the system work. They've seen that it can allow us to be successful," Martinez said of his returning sophomores better understanding his practice approach.
"The fact that we brought increased intensity level and competition within the team in practice is the very reason we're trying to put the pressure on players right away. That is something we did last year and maybe some players were surprised to see. Now the sophomores are witness to this being the right way."
Like last November, Tyler remains the model for the Tigers - and all teams - to aspire to as they hold the preseason No. 1 ranking.
"When you're second you need to work harder than first to become first," Martinez said.
"We're trying to do that. We're trying to work harder than we did last year."
The Tigers host Luther College in their season opener today at 4 p.m. MCC posted an 0-2-1 mark in its three preseason scrimmages including a 3-2 double overtime loss to William Penn, a 2-1 setback against AIB and a 2-2 overtime draw with the Grand View JV. The Tigers host Grand View's JV Aug. 25. Bello, who led the team in goals (8) as a freshman last season, will not be with the Tigers this year as he is tending to a family matter. "(Alex) will be missed since he was an excellent player and great member of the student body," said Martinez.