The taste is still in their mouths.
Last year, the St. Bonaventure men's soccer team advanced to its first Atlantic 10 Tournament since 2012 in epic fashion, upsetting the nation's No. 22-ranked team Virginia Commonwealth on the final day of the regular season to qualify.
While the Bonnies fell decisively, 4-1, to the Rams in a first-round rematch four days later, simply qualifying for the eight-team tournament helped forget six years of doldrums, including the previous two under head coach Kwame Oduro.
Even though Kieran Toland, whose goal and assist buoyed the Bonnies in that victory, and center midfield running mate Paul Afful, have exhausted their collegiate eligibility, Oduro's side returns 10 seniors, eight who played pivotal roles in last season's leap.
"I think that win last year to get into the playoffs - to see how it feels to get in the playoffs - the seniors have tasted it, and they want that taste again," Oduro mused after St. Bonaventure nipped Niagara, 1-0, in a Little 3 rivalry match. "It's something that drives our players in training and now in games."
Conference voters don't believe the Bonnies can repeat last year's feat, projecting them 11th of the 13 A-10 teams in August. A-10 play begins Oct. 3 for St. Bonaventure, which will host Dayton at Marra Athletics Complex. First, though, another Little 3 contest - at Canisius Sept. 22 - looms as a non-conference tilt for local bragging rights.
Here are five things to know about the Bonnies (3-2-1):
Nigerian-born forward Kosi Nwafornso stayed healthy and focused in 2017, a chief reason why the Bonnies were able to reach the postseason. Injuries had derailed his sophomore season in 2016 after he was selected to the conference all-rookie team as a freshman.
In 2018, the senior is at his peak; Nwafornso has matured as a player and a person without sacrificing the flashes of joy and exuberance that characterize his style. The fleet-footed striker has scored five goals in six games, including three from the penalty spot.
Here's one PK goal - and now typical celebration - from the 1-0 win over Niagara.
83’: Goal, @GoBonnies! Kosi Nwafornso buries the penalty kick after a beautiful through ball from deep by Currey sent Kosi in. His cross to the back post was denied by a clear foul. Here’s what ensued. pic.twitter.com/5xoEdeTNeu
— Buffalo News Soccer (@BN_Soccer) September 16, 2018
"I think he's matured very well," explained Oduro, referring to Nwafornso's on-field production. "He started to score goals on a one-time finish, we want him to do more of that. We tell him, 'There are more better players around you; we don't need you to dribble everybody in order to score.'"
"We need him to do less of that, and as he attracts more players, he gives other people a chance to score goals. We thought he was always a good forward - it's just now he's surrounded by better players and we're finding ways to simplify his game."
On a personal level, reining in the emotional striker can still be a challenge. But it's better than past years.
"It is difficult; he was a kid when he came here," Oduro reflected. "Seventeen-years-old, you're dealing with a young adult, a teenager, if you think about it. Some days have been tough, but we hope he's gotten there. We tell him, 'If you keep this up, that's what we want from you, you're going to do well. If you [regress], then it's a 50-50 chance.'"
Iacobellis assumes leadership role
Maybe it's because the idea of a student-athlete remaining at one program for four years has become antiquated, but it feels like senior goalkeeper Luke Iacobellis has been in Olean forever.
The widely accepted notion that keepers get better with age - and that their improvement continues while field players' decline - is true for the Toronto product, who enters Saturday's match against Canisius with a sparkling .38 goals against average, four shutouts in five starts and 13 total saves.
"He's been incredible," Oduro remarked. "His development as a goalkeeper has been outstanding, and [assistant coach Ryan] Arvin working with him day in and day out has also helped him out. He's become a mature man, and now he looks like a kid who can play at the next level. He's not only making saves, but he's commanding our back line to limit shots on goal."
Command of the back four is especially important, as star center back Nicola Bonso's English improves and Isaiah Wilson - who's played virtually every role for the Bonnies - grows accustomed to his partnership with the Italian.
Two steady seniors - Anthony Gaglianese and underrated Kwame Opoku - at the fullback spots is certainly a blessing for Iacobellis.
And it's not that the Bonnies defensive unit hasn't been tested by quality competition. The season opener against No. 6 Louisville and Saturday's clash vs. Canisius should keep them sharp for the seemingly unrelenting quality of A-10 play.
As local NCAA Division I programs have learned through the years, it's not easy to recruit foreign talent. Securing visas, meeting academic qualifications and more hurdles can impede these signings.
A native of Ghana, Oduro has worked feverishly to keep the pipeline to St. Bonaventure alive. First, it was Paul Afful, whose two years with the Bonnies demanded more of him than perhaps any player in the last decade (if local college soccer kept track of ground covered over the course of a season, there'd be no question that Afful would have topped the Little 3 by a landslide).
But with Afful's departure comes a new addition from Ghana, freshman winger Isaac Boamah, already an important starter in the side.
Listed at 5'7 - there's no way he's 5'7 - Boamah is a whirling dervish of a midfielder, with frightening change of pace, a fearless streak and a work rate beyond his years.
Aside from their willingness to cover ground, there aren't many similarities between Afful and Boamah; while the former was smooth and glided around the field, the latter might be more entertaining to watch, zigzagging around defenders, penetrating into dangerous areas and constantly forcing back lines to be aware of his location.
Seriously, go watch Boamah play.
Depth for days
An excess of talent isn't a luxury that Oduro and his predecessor, Mel Mahler, have had over the course of the last decade (the Bonnies won their last playoff match in 2009). Thanks to smart recruiting and players' commitment to the program, depth is finally a positive term in 2018.
"When we sub, we're fine," Oduro said. "Playing 18-20 players, we keep the level and the intensity up. Eventually the other team breaks down.
"I think that's why most of our goals are coming in the second half, 70th, 80th minute and up. If we keep that up, we're going to be a tough team to play against."
Some of the bench names may ring a bell to local soccer fans: Nikko Richards spent a year with FC Buffalo, while Isaiah Barrett spent two. Defender-midfielder Anthony Sileo was a regular starter for the Bonnies in past years. Others, like Rochester product Cuneyt Vardar, Hong Kong native Ethan Yeung and midfielder Jacob Jashinski, are freshmen already pressing for playing time.
[Go way back: Primer on St. Bonaventure from September 2016]
Grappling with long odds
If St. Bonaventure were in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, we'd be looking at the program much differently. The difficulty of playing in a high-major conference such as the Atlantic 10 in a remote location like Olean isn't ideal. It's tough to draw general-interest fans, challenging to recruit and simply tough to win games.
As the Bonnies have learned in the last decade, it's easy to get stuck in a rut of losing, and what other programs might see as mediocrity - sneaking into an eight-team postseason - is viewed as a relative milestone. Resetting these goals and expectations takes time - a LONG time, it seems - but credit Oduro and his staff for the patience and growth required to put St. Bonaventure on the map.
They're not quite there yet, but the Bonnies are moving in the right direction.
*Hong Kong native Remi Dujardin rejoined the Bonnies in early September after representing his country in the Asia Games. Hong Kong advanced out of Group A - finishing well ahead of Laos and Chinese Taipei - before falling in the knockout stage to Uzbekistan, 3-0. For fans of the English Premier League, this was the same competition that saw Tottenham's Heung-min Son avoid mandatory military duty as a result of South Korea's trophy.
*If you're at a Bonnies match, spend a few minutes watching the positioning of center back Bonso. He rarely puts a foot wrong, and he was deserving of his all-rookie team honors from last season, even if his play is rarely flashy.
*Kwame Opoku, who starred this past summer for the National Premier Soccer League's Erie Commodores, a rival of FC Buffalo, is the best one-vs.-one lockdown defender in the Little 3. Blessed with superior athleticism, great footwork and a determination to not get beat, the senior's ability shines against conference's speedy attackers such as Rhode Island's Chae Brangman.