After the 2007 season yielded a middling 6-9-2 record, men's soccer entered the off-season with the intent to rebuild.
Head coach Scott Wiercinski began his third season in charge of the program looking for major improvements away from Stagg Field. At the Bob Baptista Invitational in Wheaton, the Maroons (1-1) lost 5-1 to fourth-ranked Messiah before holding off Carroll in a tight match, edging the Pioneers 3-2.
The squad that faced five-time national champion Messiah (3-0) was comprised almost entirely of returning players, with first-year defender Rashad Masri the only face new to the starting lineup. The Maroons were also without the presence of dynamic second-year forward Alex Clifford through a suspension held over from last season. Several players made impacts in substitute appearances but couldn't prevent Messiah from out-shooting Chicago 26-3.
By halftime the score was 3-0 in favor of the Falcons, with all three goals coming from the midfield. In the 16th minute, second-year midfielder Geoff Pezon capitalized on a defensive lapse by the Maroons, stealing the ball at the top of the Chicago box and beating second-year goalkeeper Steven Baron. First-year Derek Black and third-year Brett Faro also contributed goals of their own from close range.
The Maroons only managed one shot in the first half but were able to pull a goal back with their second shot on target when first-year midfielder Stanton Coville converted a penalty kick nine minutes after the restart. However, Chicago was vastly overmatched by perennial powerhouse Messiah as Pezon completed his hat trick, beating first-year substitute goalkeeper Chris Giusto with two superbly taken goals late in the game.
Taking such a heavy loss in the first match of the season was undoubtedly not part of the rebuilding plan, but the Maroons bounced back with a strong performance against Carroll (1-2).
"From a coaching perspective, one of the things I was most excited about was that we did get beaten in that first game, didn't have a great result, and didn't really play all that well, but we came back the next day and fought hard and played well enough to win, which is a good sign of resilience," Wiercinski said.
Against the Pioneers, Wiercinski relied on a more experienced lineup and was rewarded with goals from his returning players. In the 26th minute, fourth-year forward Eric Floyd put the ball off the crossbar, leaving second-year midfielder Kenzo Manners with an easy rebound for the first goal. Seven minutes later, Floyd added a tally of his own to give Chicago a 2-0 lead going into halftime.
Soon after the restart, third-year forward Edgar Friloux scored off a pass from Manners. The three-goal lead was comfortable for a mere 40 seconds, though; Carroll broke through the Maroon defense almost immediately, with third-year forward Andy Prentice finding the net. Four minutes later, third-year midfielder Craig Carlson, who provided the assist for Prentice, headed the ball in to further whittle away Chicago's advantage.
The Pioneers outshot the Maroons 24-16 but were kept at bay by Giusto, who played the full 90 minutes and recorded 13 saves for his first career win. Giusto is one of the rookies Wiercinski hopes to count on for the season, though he is enthusiastic about the entire incoming class.
"They're a good class, they help us be a little bit bigger and a little bit more physical because of the positions that we've brought in and also because of the physical attributes that they have," Wiercinski said. "To a man, they have a fantastic attitude about working hard and trying hard and doing all the things that we want them to do, for all of our players, both on the practice field and on the game field."
The rookies may bring an added element of physicality, but Wiercinski has noted a dramatic improvement in terms of fitness across the board.
"That's certainly not a surprise, but it's a great situation to be in, that everybody is healthy and fit and ready to go. For that reason, there's been a lot fewer injuries as well," he said.
For the past two seasons, the Maroons have been considered a young team, with a young coach at the helm, but the surprises of 2006 and the disappointments of 2007 have given way to familiar objectives and goals.
"We have not really talked about wins and losses this year because we're more focused on our daily efforts and the energy we're putting into improving on a daily basis," Wiercinski said. "This year has been far better than in recent years in terms of guys working really hard, being enthusiastic about playing and accepting the challenge, being coachable, having great attitudes...and being really competitive for everything that we've got to play for. I'm hoping that if we continue those trends, then the results will take care of themselves."