The season of inarguably the best men’s soccer team in the last two decades came to a halt on Friday with a 2-1 semifinal loss to eventual MWC champion Lake Forest College. The Foresters took a 1-0 lead into intermission and extended the lead to 2-0 on a goal in the 62nd minute. Senior Max Gatyas trimmed the lead on a penalty kick with 12 to go, but Lake Forest was able to hold off an aggressive Knox attack until the final whistle.
Sophomore Charlie Harned compared the loss to the Prairie Fire’s Oct. 19 win over the Foresters, saying, “It really helped Lake Forest having their starting central defender back, who was out of the lineup when we played them the first time. Apart from that, the only difference was the result. We played our hearts out both times – we just happened to come up a little short in the conference tournament.” Lake Forest went on to defeat St. Norbert 4-0 to win the MWC Championship and earn a bid in the Division III Tournament.
Records offer little consolation without a trophy to go with it, but this Knox squad managed to almost entirely rewrite the record books. They set school records with 13 victories, 11 consecutive wins, nine shutouts, 56 goals scored, 42 assists, 154 points and 13 game-winning goals.
On the individual side of things, junior Sean Dockrell’s nine shutouts were good enough for second best in MWC history and the team’s staggering defense allowed only 0.77 goals per game, good enough for 10th best in MWC history. Sophomore Nathaniel Logie set a Knox record with his 16 goals on the year, while Gatyas finished with a school record 13 assists.
At the end of the season, only one team (the ultimate DIII) will be able to end their season with a victory. It happened to not be this Prairie Fire team, but that isn’t cause for dismay.
Knox soccer today, compared to even two years ago, looks like an entirely new program. The reality of the situation is that they have indeed turned 180 degrees in the opposite direction. And it’s clear that the root cause of the turnaround is Head Coach Matt Edwards. Edwards has made the program his main priority and, unlike the coaching staff prior, has men’s soccer as his sole priority in the athletics department.Much talk has already been made that the success of a program comes from the top down, so let us not linger on that. Rather, let it serve as a model for Knox athletics.
Men’s soccer was going nowhere fast after a dismal 1-16 2011 season, and it would have been easy to look upon that team with little hope. All it took to fundamentally reshape the program was one step in the opposite direction. It started with a renewed, holistic head coach. From there, Edwards’ influence has trickled to every aspect of the program, influencing the caliber of recruits Knox has been able to garner (including freshman standout Terence Lau), affecting the style of soccer Knox plays and altering the mindset with which the Prairie Fire take the field.
“We had a large group of guys that made huge improvements to the program last year and had a better sense of what it took to win in the MWC,” Gatyas said of the team’s growth. “That served as a foundation by which we could build our identity as a hard-working, defensive-minded program. In the year’s past, we had to continually work on building the foundation. This year, we were finally able to build upon that foundation and grow.”
What the soccer team provides is a kernel of hope, a sign that Knox athletics are taking the necessary steps to becoming wholly competitive. A quick glance at other programs (men’s basketball, who went 1-22 and hired Head Coach Kevin Walden in 2012, football, who are currently 1-8 under new Head Coach Damon Tomeo, or volleyball, who went 3-22 under second-year Head Coach Shayla Chalker) shows that they, too, are making the first step in the same direction. We are perhaps just a few years removed from Knox having successful programs across the board. The coaches are in place; now it’s up to the players to follow suit.
Call this looking too far into the future, reading too much into the cards, but for me, this soccer season was a sign. It was a sign not only of Knox soccer and its immediate and future success, but also of a culture change in the athletics department at large. Hats off to a phenomenal soccer season, and for what’s to come for the future of Knox athletics.