It’s tempting to say that today’s NCAA first-round match with Wartburg will be a whole new ballgame for men’s soccer. The Maroons earned enough breathing room in UAA play that they never faced a must-win game like this one down the stretch. They haven’t played at Wheaton—the site of today’s match—since October 2007, and they haven’t played Wartburg since the 2005 NCAA tournament, when the team’s four fourth-years were still sitting in high school classes.
But that isn’t how head coach Scott Wiercinski looks at it. To hear him tell it, this isn’t game one of the postseason; this is game 19 of a season that began with practices in the mid-August heat. Wartburg (15–4–1) is just the latest part of a project that Chicago (12–3–3) has been working at for months now.
“At this point in the year, our guys do what they do well,” Wiercinski said. “We’ve worked on this all season long, and we really don’t plan on changing much as we go forward.”
That’s not to say that Chicago isn’t doing what they can to prepare for Wartburg, a team with a name so unfortunate you could almost forget that they beat third-ranked Loras (18–2–1) to win the IIAC tournament last weekend. Or that the Knights have won six games in a row, and 10 of their past 11. Or that the last time the Maroons and Knights met, in the 2005 NCAA tournament, the teams tied 1–1, and Wartburg advanced on penalty kicks.
Four years after that game, Wiercinski said the Knights’ strengths start with their goalkeeper, Trent Michael, who has started 16 of 20 games this year and recorded all 15 of Wartburg’s wins. Besides Michael, there are some quick-strike forwards, and midfielders who see the pitch and move the ball well. In short, the Knights are an NCAA tournament-caliber team, and there aren’t any gaping holes to be found in their scheme.
“They’re a well-balanced team.” Wiercinski said. “They don’t have any weaknesses that are going to be easily exposed. We’re going to have to play really, really well in order to have a good result.”
If that good result comes, Chicago will be paired with either Wheaton (14–3–3) or Calvin (15–4–1), the teams on the other side of the Maroons’ regional, for a second-round match Saturday evening. After Chicago plays tonight, Wheaton and Calvin then play on the same field, and if the Maroons win, they’ll sit down and scout the opposition afterwards.
But, as they have throughout the year, Chicago is proceeding game-by-game, and this entire week has been given over to preparation for Wartburg.
Should the Maroons make it to a Saturday night match-up with Wheaton, they’ll be in for a rowdy atmosphere against the home-standing Thunder. At Wheaton, the only thing that rivals the quality of the soccer teams each fall is the dedication of their supporters.
Brett Marhanka, Wheaton’s sports information director, told how Michael Giuliano, the Thunder’s head coach, left D-I San Diego State to coach at Wheaton. After his first game at Wheaton, Giuliano called his former school in California and described the Wheaton followers. Back in San Diego, Guiliano’s old colleagues couldn’t believe what they were hearing.
“They tend to be loud,” Marhanka said of the Wheaton faithful. “They have a good time, and they’re fairly knowledgeable.”
Chicago would surely relish playing in that environment. The Maroons are excited as is, and seem to have taken the cue of fourth-year defender Drew Marshall, one of the only Maroons to remember the team’s last NCAA trip, in 2006. Marshall said it was important that the team understand the rarity of today’s game.
“I just hope people realize how special it is to be in the tournament,” Marshall said. “You don’t get to go every year.”
But special as the circumstances are, all Chicago needs today, Marshall said, is more of the same.
“We just need to come out focused and play our game,” Marshall said.