For men’s soccer, the euphoria of earning a postseason berth came to an abrupt end in the cruelest of fashions.
Back in the NCAA tournament for the second straight season, the Maroons’ (10–5–4) postseason stay lasted for only a bittersweet 110 minutes as they battled St. Norbert (15–2–2) to a scoreless draw before falling 4–3 in the penalty shootout Saturday afternoon in River Forest.
After a furiously contested second half that saw both teams create and squander scoring opportunities, plus two overtime periods that failed to yield a clear victor, the match came to its breathless conclusion in the form of penalty kicks—the second season in a row that the Maroons’ NCAA fate would be decided in such a manner.
Neither the Maroons nor the Green Knights put together much in the first half, which was made even drearier by the bitterly cold weather and a cut-up pitch. Few scoring chances fell to the Maroons, who found it difficult to string together enough passes to blow past the Green Knights’ five-man midfield.
“In simple terms, their tactics outweighed ours because we didn’t have it technically,” head coach Scott Wiercinski said. “Some of our decisions were slow, and it gave them opportunities to continue to be aggressive and physical.”
While the first half was tentative, the second half was a different story altogether, as play opened up for both teams. Soon after the restart, second-year midfielder Whitney Panneton was taken down just outside the St. Norbert area; the free kick taken by first-year forward Alex Takakuwa had the right amount of curl, but it was too high to trouble St. Norbert goalkeeper Mike Rietveld.
The first real chance of the game fell to the Green Knights in the 57th minute as a free kick found fourth-year midfielder A.J. Hermann unmarked inside the Chicago box. Fourth-year goalkeeper Keith Crum reacted quickly to the shot, lunging to his left to keep the ball out of the net and the Maroons in the game.
The pressure oscillated between the two teams, and the Maroons nearly went on top thanks to the best individual effort of the day, a scintillating half-field run from third-year central defender Jon Cartwright. After tackling the ball away from a St. Norbert player in the midfield, he surged forward into the box and exchanged a one-two with third-year forward Andrew Hamilton before seeing his left-footed shot saved deftly by Rietveld.
Cartwright and the rest of the Maroons back five gave a standout performance, holding off the aggressive St. Norbert attack and keeping Chicago in the game when the attack failed to pull the trigger in regulation time.
“We had some great passing going on through the run of play that showed we were in control. We just needed to put one away. St. Norbert played a solid defensive game, so credit to them as well,” Cartwright said.
The Maroons had their chances in overtime as well. In the first OT period, second-year midfielder Tom Lobell centered the ball to second-year winger Eric Floyd, who shot straight at the keeper. Lobell nearly notched an assist again four minutes into the second OT. His measured cross found fourth-year midfielder Joe Frontczak with space inside the box, but the midfielder’s low shot slid agonizingly across the face of the goal and past the near post.
Unlucky in front of goal for the previous 110 minutes, the Maroons would see their fate decided by a penalty shoot-out for the second season in a row.
“In the first round there’s so much grit and will and feistiness to games, so often it’s difficult for teams to separate themselves,” Wiercinski said. “It was certainly a reality that we were prepared for.” The reality was also clear to the visiting fans—after voicing their support throughout the match with a rousing chorus of bleacher stomping, they descended into silence once the proverbial lights were dimmed and the stage was set. The finale was about to begin.
Subbing in for Crum, second-year Micah Gruber toed the line for the Maroons in the shootout. Gruber had showed his mettle in the regular season when Crum was out with a strained hip flexor and impressed the coaching staff enough in practice to warrant the substitution.
The Maroons’ penalty takers were Takakuwa, third-year defender Stuart Phelps, Cartwright, third-year midfielder Eric Kirkenmeier, and Hamilton.
Starting off brightly with Takakuwa’s successful try, the Maroons’ chances took a hit on the second attempt when Phelps scuffed the ball past Rietveld’s right hand post. Cartwright and third-year co-captain Eric Kirkenmeier both buried their shots to keep the pressure on St. Norbert. But with the Knights perfect through four shots, Hamilton, last in line for Chicago, needed to convert for the squad to stay alive. The Maroons’ usual penalty taker saw his effort tipped over the bar, and the St. Norbert players rushed onto the field in celebration.
The first-round exit closes the curtain on the careers of four distinguished Maroons: Crum, Frontczak, defender James Dagonas, and goalkeeper Tom Bailey. Crum holds the all-time shutout record with 22, while the others have all played contributing roles in one of the most prolific stretches in program history.
“This season was particularly exceptional since the core group of players from last year had graduated and our coach had also left. It was hard to expect anything under those circumstances,” Crum said. “Our freshmen contributed more in games than any recent class has in their first year, and we were able to go further than a lot of people had expected as a result.”
After successfully integrating a new coach and establishing nine starters in new positions, the squad overcame early obstacles to exceed their own expectations. For next season’s returning players, the penalty shoot-out remains a valuable if unfortunate learning experience, one of many in a season of growth.
“The heartbreak that comes from a loss of that kind will stay with us. Next year when we make the tournament the guys will know how it feels to exit early,” Cartwright said. “It’s good that we had so many young guys playing. They’ll remember this and build on it for the next few years.”
Wiercinski also benefits from the postseason participation, although both he and his team are already looking forward to next season. There’s a lot of work to be done still, and next season will pose a new set of problems for a squad looking to make the leap from being a good team to a great one.
“The area where a little improvement will go a really long way in terms of making our program and our team better is the mental side of things. Throughout the course of the season, we became more resilient through the tough stretches.... but ultimately, the difference between winning and losing at that competitive level is how mentally prepared you are to play.”
If this season—in many ways a breakout season for an inexperienced squad led by a new head coach—is any indication, there’s a lot to look forward to.