November 10, 2006

Men's soccer readies for playoff joust with Knights

There are any number of places to start if you’re looking for clues as to how men’s soccer made the postseason. There is the energetic and efficient new striking tandem. There is the revamped midfield and back four, given new life by an influx of first-years and position changes. But all of those efforts would have gone for naught were it not for the efforts of a veteran keeper and his understudy.

Despite participating in the NCAA tournament for the second straight year, the Maroons (10–5–3) have been anything but a model of stability this season. Overhauling its roster and coaching staff in the offseason, Chicago entered the fall with nine players in new positions and a new face pacing the sidelines. With a host of talented players stepping up, the Maroons overcame the moves and gelled as the season progressed. The point of separation between good teams and great teams is rarely one of talent, though. It usually comes down to the little things, like how a squad responds when something unexpected happens.

“When we’ve had injuries, others have played well and that has afforded us the opportunity to make sure they are healthy,” head coach Scott Wiercinski said.

When fourth-year goalie Keith Crum left the pitch in the second half of a 1–1 draw at Rochester October 13 with a strained hip flexor, it could have had a calamitous impact on the squad’s fate. A starter since the beginning of his second year in Hyde Park, the former walk-on had been a steadying influence in net as seemingly every other position on the field underwent drastic changes.

Stepping up to fill the void, though, was second-year Micah Gruber, a relatively untested backup who had yet to see action in competitive play. In the five matches that Gruber started, the Maroons racked up a 3–1–1 record, including key regional wins over Wheaton and UW–Whitewater. Gruber capped things off with a stellar weekend performance in the squad’s home finale, earning UAA athlete of the week honors after a 1–1 tie with 20th-ranked NYU and a 2–0 shutout of Brandeis.

“Coming in and playing your first game halfway through the season is particularly difficult for a goalkeeper since everyone needs to trust you,” said Crum, who holds the school’s career shutout record with 21. “Micah was extremely good at establishing that trust by making good saves and not doing anything too risky. A lot of goalkeepers try to do too much when they get their chance and blow it, which Micah certainly didn’t do. His consistency made it easy for everyone to adjust to the change, and it allowed me to take my time getting healthy.”

“Once we got past the unfamiliarity with each other’s styles, we were really able to play well because they know what I relied upon them to do and I knew what they expected from me,” Gruber said.

Crum eventually returned in time to start Saturday’s 1–0 loss at 25th-ranked Wash U. With the overwhelming success of both netminders, it’s easy to overlook the stylistic differences between the two. Each player comes from a different school of goaltending but being on the same team and working with ex-goalkeeper Wiercinski forced both players to expand their repertoire and become more complete players.

“Keith’s more of a territorial keeper, whereas Micah is more of a goal-line goalkeeper,” Wiercinski said. “It’s something he does very well. To be able to do both is the ideal scenario.”

With the margin for error now razor-thin, the Maroons will need to be on their toes if they look to advance past Saturday’s first-round date with 21st-ranked St. Norbert (15–2–1). Although Chicago thrashed the Green Knights 4–0 last season at the UW–Oshkosh invitational, neither squad has much in common with its 2005 edition. Bolstered by the dynamic attacking duo of fourth-year Nick Bonifas (15 goals, 6 assists) and first-year Donny Balfoun (7 goals, 2 assists), St. Norbert has outscored its opponents by 30 goals, and is currently riding a 10-game winning streak. The Green Knights earned a pool A, automatic bid into the tourney by virtue of their 1–0 win over Carroll in the finals of the Midwest Conference Tournament.

“St. Norbert was a pretty physical and direct team when we played them last year, and I don’t expect that to have changed much,” Crum said. “Any time you have beaten a team, it gives you a certain amount of confidence when you play them again. I don’t think anyone will take them lightly though just because we won last year.”

“We expect them to be quite similar to Wash U in their build-up and even in their team shape,” third-year central defender Jon Cartwright said. “The problems that we had with Wash U last weekend are a constant part of our practice work this week.”

Should Chicago banish St. Norbert once more, they would meet either ninth-ranked Dominican (18–1–1) or Aurora (12–4–4) in Sunday’s second round. Having handed the Stars their only defeat of the season September 20 in River Forest and battled the Spartans to a scoreless draw September 4, the Maroons enter the weekend cautiously optimistic but not overly confident. Despite the early-season 1–0 loss, Dominican is sixth in the nation in scoring with 78 goals, led by second-year forward Matt Kochanowski (20 goals, 10 assists).

The Maroons have come a long way from the beginning of the season. With a never-say-die attitude and talent to boot, they have set themselves up for a strong postseason run. If they can stay focused and disciplined, it could be a weekend to remember.

“We really want to prove not only to the country but to ourselves that we can do something in the tournament,” Cartwright said. “These chances don’t come along every year.”