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November 6, 2007

At rocky season's end, men's soccer finds steadier footing in shutout draw

A persistent struggle for men’s soccer this season was consistency in execution—they needed desperately to find their footing, and they finally did on the last day of the 2007 season. It may have come too late to salvage this year’s aspirations, but for the returning players, next year starts now, and it starts by building off the improvements made over the past 17 games.

With nothing to lose, the Maroons (6–9–2, 1–4–2 UAA) battled 20th-ranked Wash U (13–4–2, 4–1–2) to a 0-0 draw Saturday, sending their seniors off with a well deserved clean sheet and one last round of applause.

“For the Wash U game, our expectation was simply...to improve on the Rochester game,” fourth-year midfielder and captain Stu Phelps said. “For us, that meant playing 90 complete minutes with no lapses.”

For a young team that was at times unable to sustain pressure on top teams, this last conference match saw the Maroons forced to repel the Bears’ early attack. Minutes into the game, fourth-year defender Elie Zenner slid a free kick into the box for third-year midfielder Kellen Hayes, who blasted an angled shot that first-year goalkeeper Steven Baron parried out of harm’s way.

After the initial scare, Chicago started to show their own attacking intent. The squad’s best chance came when a cross by second-year defender Drew Marshall bounced around inside the Wash U area and eventually landed at the feet of first-year winger Alex Clifford, whose hard shot was saved point-blank by second-year goalkeeper John Smelcer.

Both teams traded dangerous chances before the end of the first half, but neither side found the back of the net. Two attempts by Clifford landed just wide of the post, while second-year midfielder Nat Zenner was unable to take advantage of a scuffed punch by Baron late in the half, also missing the net.

The game remained open for the taking through the second half as both teams pressured for a go-ahead goal. Chicago’s most dangerous chance was created by first-year midfielder Ryan Fitzgerald, weaving past three Wash U defenders and laying the ball forward to fourth-year Andrew Hamilton. The striker turned and unleashed a left-footed shot that Smelcer palmed away, diving across the face of goal to keep the score level at 0–0.

While the Maroons’ offensive pressure remained steady, the biggest highlight of the day was the composed performance of the defense, led by fourth-year Jon Cartwright and Marshall. The back five limited the Bears to only two shots on target through 110 minutes.

“They played a formation that mirrored us exactly, and player to player, I think we were the better team. It was easy to manage one attacking player at the back,” Cartwright said. “That lightened the load on us a little more.... We were able to clean things up because there wasn’t quite as much confusion going on at the back.”

Defeats had marked two of the Maroons’ previous three overtime outings, and the team was determined not to fall this time.

“It wasn’t even the thought that this was my last season so much as this was another opportunity to prove that we don’t give up at the end of games,” Cartwright said.

Limiting the Bears to one shot in those 20 minutes allowed the offense to take control of the game. In the second overtime period, Chicago had two golden chances to bag a victory but could not sneak the ball past Smelcer. The first opportunity was again created by Fitzgerald, whose pass set Clifford up to take a shot from outside the area. The winger fired, but it went straight into Smelcer’s hands. The Wash U keeper outdid himself a minute later with a flying save that just managed to tip Clifford’s rocket over the crossbar.

Bizarrely, the South Siders then lost both their attacking sparks, as first Hamilton and then Clifford were sent off by the whistle-happy referee, leaving the squad two men short for the final minute of double overtime. However, Wash U was unable to capitalize on their numerical advantage, and the match ended in a scoreless draw that meant a lot more to Chicago than the scoreline suggested.

“It was maybe the best straight 110 minutes of soccer we’ve played this year,” Wiercinski said.

Although the Maroons weren’t able to log a win over their archrivals, the overall performance was one that the squad could be proud of. In particular, the seniors stood out, with Hamilton’s four shots, Phelps’s steady leadership, midfielder Mike Glass’s strong contributions as a substitute, and Cartwright’s season-defining defensive efforts.

“One of the things I shared with the seniors after the game was that although they didn’t quite have the senior season that they wanted, I was really proud of the performance that they had marking the end of their careers,” Wiercinski said.

The fourth-years have left an indelible mark on the program, playing central roles in the two postseason visits in 2005 and 2006 and taking the helm as team leaders in 2007.

“The last two seasons we’ve had a young team, and for me and the other seniors, it was obvious that we in large part could shape the dynamics of our team,” Phelps said. “Both on and off the field, we were aware of that and tried to lead the team as best we could.”

Though it has been a frustrating road for the Maroons, the respite that comes with the end of the season will be a brief one, as the squad will hit the offseason with a lot on their minds.

“We can’t have the same offseason we had last year...because then we’re destined to kind of repeat this season,” Wiercinski said. “The real goals are to be better than we are today, tomorrow, and to try to continue that process. Regardless of who we play and when we play them and under what circumstances—if we do that, then that’s all we can really expect from ourselves and hope from ourselves.”