November 7, 2006

Men’s soccer earns NCAA bid

The going is about to get especially rough for men’s soccer, and the Maroons (10–5–3, 2–3–2 UAA) will have to rise to the occasion and get tough in order to assert themselves quickly in the postseason. A 1–0 loss to Wash U (12–3–2, 4–2–1) Saturday cast some concern on the squad’s hold on a playoff bid, but the NCAA championship selection released late Sunday night has Chicago slated to make its second nationals appearance in a row. Now comes the hard part of making sure the lessons learned during the regular season pay off in the chase of a DIII title.

Saturday’s clash with Wash U provided the squad with a good start to its postseason preparation. In the neither frantic nor particularly well-played matchup now expected from this rivalry, neither team was able to build up any real offensive rhythm thanks to the referee’s overzealous inclination to blow his whistle. While each side lost some of its punch in the attack, the Bears’ midfield managed to dominate the run of play after the initial battle for possession.

“We lacked a lot of energy and a lot of that fight that we’ve had at other times, and inexplicably so, because I would have expected for us to be very ready and prepared,” head coach Scott Wiercinski said. “Emotionally and psychologically, we were not very good.”

Fourth-year goalkeeper Keith Crum, back after being sidelined by a strained hip flexor for the past five games, pulled off five saves as Wash U outshot the Maroons 12–3. Crum was finally beaten 88 minutes into the game by third-year midfielder Onyi Okoroafor, who trapped a cross from first-year forward John Hengel and placed a strong shot into the far corner of the net.

With less than two minutes to recover from the 1–0 deficit, the Maroons nearly pulled off their second miracle in as many weeks. The would-be equalizer again came from a corner by first-year midfielder Alex Takakuwa, who also set up the seven-second upset against NYU at Stagg last Saturday. This time the ball found fourth-year winger Joey Frontczak deep inside the box with 22 seconds left and with no defenders in front of him. But the veteran streamlined his shot to first-year goalkeeper John Smelcer, and Chicago’s chance was gone.

Despite the less-than-inspiring display on the field, the Maroons’ hopes of making the NCAA playoffs remained high with some points for their Pool C bid still to be gained from battling the highly regionally ranked Wash U on its territory. Still, it was not a performance to be repeated, especially with regional powerhouse St. Norbert (15–2–1) lurking around the corner to kick off the first round of the tournament this weekend at Dominican University.

“Everyone knows that the postseason is an event that we’ve been fortunate enough to be chosen to play in, so every opponent is going to be good,” Wiercinski said. “If we don’t bring any fight, energy, scrap, and grit to the game on Saturday, then we’ll definitely be going home on Saturday unhappy. One thing that St. Norbert does very well is play aggressively and physically, and if we don’t fight back, we could wither under that pressure.”

Should they get past that hurdle, they will meet the winner between bracket hosts Dominican (IL) (18–1–1) and Aurora (12–4–4)—two teams that Chicago met during the regular season with great success. In September, the Maroons drew a 0–0 result with Aurora at Stagg Field before handing Dominican what would be their only loss of the season on an Eric Kirkenmeier goal.

In fact, an incredible four of the Maroons’ six conference opponents (UAA champs Case Western, NYU, Wash U, and Rochester), as well as four other regional foes (Aurora, Ohio Wesleyan, Dominican, and Wheaton) from this season have made it to the NCAAs. Chicago’s combined record against these foes is slightly less encouraging with a 2–3–3 mark against them, but at least there will be few surprises down the grueling tournament road.

“It’s the best kind of preparation you could possibly get,” Wiercinski said. “We haven’t had an opportunity where we can coach through a game because our opponents have been so good. As I look at the brackets, there’s nobody that scares us, because we’ve played so many good teams that are in the tournament, so we’re prepared to take on anybody if we can get the tactics right.”

Saturday will be the first real test for this young team, who will be without first-year midfielder Jan-Michael Guerra, who will be ineligible for the first game after picking up his fifth yellow card of the season during the Wash U contest. His absence will be the only change to the squad, which will head to the western Chicago suburb of River Forest this weekend, hoping to demonstrate a tougher mentality than the one they showed against Wash U.