The departure of former men’s soccer coach Matt Edwards last month can only be described by words such as abrupt, shocking or disappointing.
“He recruited every single person who’s currently a member of the team,” sophomore Terence Lau said. “And he was such a driving force for me in coming to Knox personally. I wasn’t mad, but I was in shock when he left.”
The signing of new coach Tyler Sheikh, however, is almost universally described as making good sense.
“There was a fantastic group of coaches put together in trying to find Matt’s replacement,” Assistant Coach Clint Moore said. “But Tyler definitely stood out. Knox is a special place, and it can be a difficult place … Any one of those guys could have executed the X’s and O’s. But Tyler got the job, I believe, because of his enthusiasm and the way he absolutely embraced our program.”
Sheikh is no stranger to Knox and the Midwest Conference- just last season, he accepted the head coach position at Illinois College and led them to a semifinal loss in the MWC tournament to no other than your very own Prairie Fire squad.
Moore noted during the pair of games last season against Sheikh and Illinois College that it was the enthusiasm that ultimately won Sheikh the job. He also saw a player’s coach: a bundle of energy who always had his players’ backs and was always very well prepared for the task at hand, drawing parallels between Sheikh and Edwards.
Senior Jacob Polay agreed with Moore’s analysis.
“Edwards always showed Sheikh a tremendous deal of respect,” Polay said. “They have similar ideologies in that they just know that you can take a team, regardless of talent, and beat anyone in the conference if you can outwork them.”
Sheikh comes packed with an impressive resume that includes coaching experience at high school, club and collegiate level as well as his own collegiate and semi-pro career. Most pertinent, however, to his arrival at Knox is his performance at IC, where he led the Blueboys to their first MWC Tournament since 1993 on the strength of their best conference record in school history.
Knox doesn’t necessarily need Sheikh to rewrite the history books as he did at IC. The Prairie Fire did enough of that last season, finishing the season with new school records for wins, both consecutive and overall, along with their own first MWC Title since 1988.
Tempting as it is to compare Sheikh and Edwards, however, it would be like comparing apples and oranges, says Moore. These are different coaches; they will come with different strategies, backgrounds and ideals, no matter how similar they may look on paper.
Either way, there is no doubt that Sheikh is inheriting a talented squad. The team will return nine of their 11 starters, including the leading MWC scorer in junior Nathaniel Logie. The danger, of course, becomes complacency.
It is hardly uncommon for teams to come off record-setting years and recede into mediocrity. Polay cautioned that the team will have to work as hard as they can every day.
“Many of these younger guys don’t know what it’s like to only win one game in a 17-game season,” Polay said. “That fueled a lot of us older guys. We had a fire because we never wanted to feel that again.”
Moore seconded Polay’s thoughts.
“It’s not too hard to go from bad to good. It’s pretty hard to go from good to great. But it’s even harder to stay consistently great. The higher you are up the mountain, the harder it is to breathe, and the less room you have for error.”
The thin margin for error, however, is hardly a cause of concern in Moore’s eyes. Rather, it has become a positive for the team.
“Bottom line about last season, as incredible as it was, is that we fell short of our goal,” he said. “And that has caused this group to come back if not as hungry as last year, then even hungrier.”
Just a month ago, Knox soccer had a head coach coming off his most successful season and a team primed for another tournament run. It would be easy tto assume that there would be a bit of an adjustment period to a new regeime. Lau, however, remains brimming with confidence in his squad.
“The coach may change, but the expectation and the fire within this team will never change,” Lau said. “We have a deep team … I can’t even name a best player for you, because everyone has been working so hard on their individual roles. We truly have a team. And we won’t let each other down.”