Boasting a roster featuring 17 returning letter-winners and 14 new players, the Knox College men’s soccer team has had to confront sizable expectations concerning the 2011 campaign from the Knox campus.
Coming off a disappointing 2-15-1 season, the Prairie Fire seek to improve their record during head coach Kevwe Akpore’s second season at the helm. According to last season’s leading scorer, sophomore Maxwell Gatyas, the squad hopes to display its improvement by winning at least a handful of conference games and shed its reputation as the Midwest Conference’s doormat.
Selected to finish last in the Midwest Conference (MWC) coaches’ poll, Knox will need to shore up its defense for prediction not to come to fruition. Through five games this season, Knox has allowed 24 goals. In 2010, the Fire allowed a MWC-worst 83 goals.
Players vital to Knox’s defensive improvement efforts include senior defender Sujeen Adhikari, sophomore goalkeeper Franz Huebner (a freshman starter), and senior defender Jeremy Shaw who has started 41 consecutive games for the Fire.
Offensively the team appears solid as the Fire’s three leading scorers from 2010 return: the abovementioned Gatyas, junior forward Donald Tchopya and versatile senior Luca Rajola-Pescarini.
Last season Gatyas had a freshman campaign for the ages, ranking second in the MWC with 11 tallies and claiming fourth place in the conference’s scoring race with 26 points. Snubbed from the all-MWC team, the sophomore worked doggedly during the off-season to improve upon his already polished play.
“[My freshman season] did [increase expectations] for me. I wanted to avoid the ‘sophomore slump.’ I wanted to improve on the things that I did not do as well last year,” Gatyas said.
While Gatyas and other players like Rajola-Pescarini (who played summer soccer in Italy as a midfielder in efforts to better his field vision) diligently labored to prepare for the 2011 season, others have not.
“Some weren’t ready physically [for the 2011 pre-season],” Rajola-Pescarini opined.
Thus far success has not come often to the Prairie Fire in 2011. On Friday, September 2, the Fire fell to Franklin College in a 7-0 rout that kicked off Knox’s campaign.
After winning its home opener against MacMurray College, 5-4, thanks to two goals from senior Jack Barthell and a game-winner from sophomore Prajwal Taludhar, the squad dropped games to Culver-Stockton College (6-1) and Eureka College (4-3).
On Sunday, Sept.11, Knox succumbed to the Rockford College Regents in a 3-0 defeat. Last Sunday’s nonconference tilt against Benedictine University was cancelled due to torrential rainfall and unplayable field conditions.
Rajola-Pescarini states that the “team chemistry wasn’t there,” during the Fire’s first five contests. Gatyas attributes the team’s sluggish start to early season problems common to a program that has to “learn to win on a consistent basis,” and the sophomore striker believes that ending the slump “has a lot to do with [the team] coming together.” Rajola-Pescarini feels that the team has found some answers by remaining positive in spite of the early-season adversity, as “everyone’s putting [in] one hundred percent and communicating.”
Though Knox has been shut out two times in 2011, the offense has performed satisfactorily, as evidenced by the Fire outshooting its opponents 91-79. If the team is to improve, it must fortify its first-half defense, as Knox has allowed 16 first-half goals through five games. Buoyed by the early-season scoring efforts of Gatyas (four points) and Tchopya (five points), the Fire remain positive with respect to the 2011 season.
“Honestly, we have the potential,” stated Rajola-Pescarini.
The turnaround begins Thursday with a home contest against the Augustana Vikings.