October 13, 2006

Men's soccer cruises, sets sights on UAA

While it may be in the nature of a young team to falter out of the gate, it is also necessary for the players to pick themselves up, move forward, and learn from past performances.

Past the halfway mark in its season, men's soccer may not be considered a certified success just yet, but the squad has improved upon each game and showed a determination that has earned the praises of head coach Scott Wiercinski, who is sharing a rookie season with many of his players. From the start of his tenure, he has shaken things up, moving established players into different positions and thrusting fresh faces into games.

“There was a lot of newness in the beginning of the season. Now everybody [...] has been working hard to push everybody around them, and as a result, they're becoming more comfortable with each other as teammates, and more comfortable playing at a higher speed and a higher intellect.” Wiercinski said. “I think everybody's reaping the benefits.”

Though the Maroons (7–3–1, 1–1) experienced their fair share of struggles, dropping a tough 1–0 result at home to league challengers Carnegie Mellon, the young team went on the road last weekend and won in impressive style against Emory. After getting their UAA campaign back on track, they continued their fine form Tuesday, dominating non-conference opponents Beloit (5–2–1) in a 2–0 victory that saw fourth-year goalkeeper Keith Crum wipe out the old school record for career shutouts.

With 21 blanksheets in the books, Crum, on Tuesday, relatively easily earned sole possession of the honor formerly held by David Collar (A.B.'99). Stats don't often tell the whole story, but on this occasion they paint a pretty accurate picture of Chicago's dominance. Totaling 14 shots on the night with nine right on target, the Maroons stormed onto the pitch and kept the pressure on Beloit. While fourth-year goalkeeper Chip Schumacher snared seven saves, the two that slipped by were more than enough to nail down the win for the squad with the Buccaneers mustering only two shots of their own.

Anchored by third-year Eric Kirkenmeier, who took charge of the midfield from the first minute right up to the final whistle, Chicago started threatening Beloit’s net early. With fourth-year Joey Frontzcak and second-year Eric Floyd getting involved down the wings, and strikers third-year Andrew Hamilton and first-year Edgar Friloux running combinations in the center of the attack, it took Chicago only 15 minutes to take advantage of their situation and pull ahead. A failed clearance by third-year defender Todd Pulvirenti gave Hamilton a clear shot, and his strike from the top of the box found the back of the net for his third goal of the season and his second in as many games.

Just a few minutes later, Beloit almost leveled the score when fourth-year forward Michael Findley's blistering 25-yard shot nearly bypassed Crum before he could save it. Crum would only be called upon once more, however, as the Maroons regained control of the game, pinning Beloit into their own territory and relegating the Buccaneers to sparse counterattacks for the rest of the first half.

One of the highlights of the new-look Maroon attack was the fluidity between Hamilton, Friloux, and Floyd, who combined for 10 of Chicago's 14 shots in the match.

“They're getting a little bit more comfortable making [positional] decisions by themselves, which is ultimately the reason why there's a good flow on the field—because they're recognizing good opportunities to make changes, and to adjust,” Wiercinski said.

Although the scoreline read 1-0, the Maroons returned after the break showing even more attacking spirit and no intention of laying back on defense. Hamilton tested Schumacher with a deflected shot before netting his second goal of the game after receiving a corner taken by first-year striker Alex Takakuwa. The goal was chalked off, however, after he was judged to have fouled fourth-year defender Corey Frarrar while challenging for the ball.

Just before the hour mark, Chicago undeniably doubled their lead after a spell of possession play led to a pass sequence in the midfield. A long switch pass by Kirkenmeier found Takakuwa, who collected the ball along the left. Taking advantage of the space afforded to him by the pair of defenders, he cut back along the top of the box to fire a shot that skidded inside the goal.

Had the game ended right then, the 2–0 scoreline would have been justified, but Takakuwa's goal seemed to break Beloit's resolve. While the Maroons looked hungry for more goals, the last half hour of the match certainly could have borne more fruit for the attack and matched last season’s wipeout of the Buccaneers.

“After we scored the first goal, we improved through the course of the game, and there were opportunities where we could have had a few more goals. As the game wore on, [Beloit] didn't get many chances, so I was pretty happy with the way everybody played,” Wiercinski said.

Tuesday's win follows a well-fought victory against Emory that not only marks a turnaround in team energy and collaboration, but also gives the Maroons an important injection of self-confidence going into a tough weekend away from home. These next few games will be their first true test in the UAA.

This afternoon they play at Rochester (6–3–1, 1–1) before traveling to Case Western (10–1–1, 1–1) Sunday. The two teams will also pose a different sort of threat than the Eagles, who tended to be less direct and less physical.

“Both teams are very physical, both teams are very big, and by all accounts, both teams are very direct in the way that they play, so it's really going to put our defense—with our lack of size—under a lot of stress throughout the course of the games,” Wiercinski said.

With two impressive road victories under their belt, the Maroons can approach the long weekend with an air of confidence that was missing just a few games before. In front of a solid defense and bolstered by a hard-working, combative midfield, the offense now knows they are capable of penetrating opposing backlines and grabbing those crucial goals.

“The goal that we've set for everybody everyday is to be a little bit better than we were yesterday,” Wiercinski said. “As a coach, I think we haven't quite met, or reached our full stride,”