When one talks to Prairie Fire men’s soccer coach Jeff Bernhardt, he or she may notice a distinct fire in his eyes. Bernhardt has been trying to instill that same passion and intensity in his players all season. Last weekend, there was some fire in the Prairie Fire as well.
The Knox men’s soccer team clashed against the Ripon College Red Hawks (5-10-1). Bernhardt made the decision to start all the seniors in the contest. Ripon applied early pressure and nearly scored several times from through balls. Knox keeper Max Miller was superb all weekend against opposing offenses. The Prairie Fire almost went ahead when freshman forward Donald Tchoypa’s cross was nearly headed in by Jeff Wozencraft. Both teams were about even the first half and neither team could score.
After halftime Knox came out flat, and the Red Hawks were able to possess the ball for a long period of time in the Knox half. The Prairie Fire had a golden chance to score when Tchoypa came up with a loose ball in the box, but the keeper deflected the shot and the defense cleared it. The game was slowly getting more and more physical as both teams tried to go ahead. 22 minutes into the second half, Ripon player Vince Butitta received a through ball with a Knox defender right next to him. A second later, the defender was on the ground and Butitta scored the first goal of the game. The Prairie Fire appealed for a call but to no avail.
A Knox sure-fire breakaway goal was taken away a few minutes later by an offside call. But Knox got its chance to even the score with 13 minutes left. The referee called a penalty on a Knox corner kick and awarded a penalty kick. Senior Jeff Wozencraft, with absolute confidence, slotted the shot right next to the post to tie the score at 1-1.
But it just was not meant to be, as Ripon scored in the final three minutes off a floating header which banked off the post then in to go ahead. Knox was unable to score and dropped a heated contest.
After the game, Coach Bernhardt said, “Today was much better. We moved the ball. We possessed the ball. We came out to play. We got an unlucky call, but it was uneven both ways. I thought we played well.”
The next day Carroll University (12-1-2) came to Galesburg. The top MWC team, the Pioneers came in also ranked 22nd in the national Division III rankings. Senior Lawrence Povoas, Knox’s leader in goals, was injured in the game the day before and did not play. On paper, the matchup looked like a blowout, but the Pioneers were not expecting a superhuman effort from Knox keeper Miller.
The Carroll attack was inexorable as they put up 14 shots in the first half. The Prairie Fire looked better than ever as they were able to build attacks and defend against the much taller Carroll team. Miller flew through the air and ran around the goal box saving shots left and right. Tchyopa nearly scored early in the game when his near post shot caught the Carroll goalie nearly unaware, but it was saved.
Carroll finally scored with 17 minutes left in the half. Their corner kick went over the defense and was recrossed into the box before being headed in by midfielder Andy Ksobiech. Knox was able to prevent the Pioneers from scoring again in the first half.
At half time coach Bernhardt told his team, “You are down 1-0 to a team that is supposed to walk on water. All the hype surrounding them, all the stories I have heard from other coaches, I told them, if you come out and play balls on the floor make more runs, we will be back in this game.”
In the next half, Miller frustrated the Carroll players with his diving saves. But the momentum of the game was swinging to Carroll. The Pioneers possessed the ball for most of the game due to their height advantage on high balls and their good passing in space.
Carroll was able to score three goals in the second half to make the final score 4-0. But their performance was underwhelming as Knox played with passion and intensity. After the game, the Knox seniors – midfielders Wozencraft, Jared Jaggers and Alex Vaasen; forwards Povoas and Ben Ramsey, defender Jules Trachsel, and keeper Miller –were honored on their Senior Day.
For Knox’s final home game of the year, Augustana College (6-7-1) came to Jorge Prats Field for a non-conference matchup. Two early goals – one in the fifth minute and another in the fourteenth – looked to swing the match decidedly in the Vikings’ favor. The Prairie Fire were outshot 17-1 in the first half and trailed 2-0 at the half.
“They slept all day, and it showed in the first half,” Bernhardt said of his team’s lackluster performance early. “We came out sluggish. Their bodies were in a routine; not having school today hurt.”
Not yet four minutes into the second half, Augustana scored again on a Jonathan Woo goal off a hard Victor Mensink cross from left to right, and momentum was again decidedly on Augustana’s side.
But 10 minutes later, in the 59th minute, Tchoypa pulled a “bolt from the blue,” drilling a shot from 35 yards out, just shy of the mid-field circle, freezing the keeper and finding the top corner to get the Prairie Fire on the board. Just two minutes after that, Wozencraft was tripped up from behind inside the box before he could get the shot off. The referee awarded Wozencraft and Knox with a penalty kick. Wozencraft knocked his kick past the keeper into the back left corner of the net to bring the Fire within one.
“A shot like Donald’s is like an alley-oop [in basketball],” Wozencraft said. “It gets everyone back into it.”
The Prairie Fire could not take further advantage of their newfound momentum, though. In the 78th minute, John Linden converted a penalty kick of his own for his second score of the day on a worm-burner past Miller on the right side of the goal. Linden’s goal put the game out of reach at 4-2, which was the eventual final.
“We moved the ball well today,” Wozencraft said. “We played some of the best soccer we’ve played all year in the second half.”
The Prairie Fire has two regular season games left. Saturday, they play Beloit College (4-3-3) in Wisconsin. Monday is the final game of the season against Grinnell College (7-6-2).
“It’s all about the seniors now,” Bernhardt said about his team’s upcoming games. “For them, they’re two long games since they’re the last games they’ll play. Their leadership has been there all year; hopefully they’ll lead us into the role of tournament spoilers.”
For senior Wozencraft, the feeling is a little different. “It’s a surreal feeling. It’s weird because I’ve played sports my whole life, and you tend to think it’ll never end. But you just have to approach it like every other game – play hard and give it 110 percent.”