Knox Soccer certainly knows how to close out the regular season; by a combined score of 13-0, both men’s and women’s Soccer clinched a berth in the MWC tournament with wins over Cornell on Saturday. The feat marks the first time the women have made it to the conference tournament since 1995, while the men have now made the tournament three years in a row, a feat that Knox has accomplished only once across all sports. Moreover, it is the first time both teams have been in the tournament at the same time in Knox history.
Despite the similarities, there are stark contrasts between the men’s and women’s teams. While the men had their senior day on Sunday, celebrating the careers of seniors such as Nathaniel Logie, who was MWC Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year last season, Charles Edemba, who earned MWC Defensive Player of the Year last year, Abdulsalam Oganla, who was a second team MWC midfielder last season and Charlie Harned, a four-year starter. In a word, the men’s team has developed tradition, something that is still nascent for the women’s team.
“We used to have a stigma around us in which we expected to lose,” said women’s Head Coach Paul Lawrence. “But this team has a real winning mentality that spreads through the coaching staff to the players, which creates a set of players that believe in themselves far more than in previous years.”
Lawrence acknowledged that the women’s team had been playing second fiddle to the men’s team for some time. This, he said, can be both a blessing and a curse. It can either lead to a defeatist attitude, or, as is the case for this team, can spur them onwards.
“We’re the underdog coming into this tournament, but that’s how we like it,” said Lawrence. “We have nothing to prove, which takes the pressure off the girls. Especially with such a young team, now they can just go out and play.”
The men, on the other hand, have had a target on their back since day one of Head Coach Tyler Sheikh’s tenure. Following the departure of former Head Coach Matt Edwards, every team who came to play the Prairie Fire came to win. And still, Sheikh and the team were able to produce a season in which they led the conference in goals per game (finishing at 3.71, nearly a goal per game higher than the next best team) while allowing four less goals than they did last season.
“It all goes to show that we’re here to stay,” said Sheikh. “When this team doesn’t make a conference tournament some year, it’s going to be a disappointment and a shock to the program. That’s the culture you want; one in which success is the bare minimum.”
For the women, success has not come easy. Just two years ago, the team couldn’t manage a conference victory. Now, they sit ready to make history. Such an ascent was not without hard work and careful preparation, something junior Claire Colt attributes in large part to Lawrence and Assistant Coach Raleigh DeRose. When Lawrence came in, he laid out a three-year plan by which the program could turn itself around. Especially after DeRose, a former player herself, joined the staff, Colt believes there was connection and chemistry between the players and staff.
The size of the freshman class has afforded the women’s team a slew of benefits. In addition to simply allowing the team to simulate game situations in practice, the team’s size has allowed for flexibility.
“The size of the freshman class has allowed us to figure out who plays best with one another,” Colt said. “In the past we had to stick to one formation but now we can move from formation to formation and moreover we can rotate people within that formation to give every team we face a different look.”
The MWC tournament is an undeniably big stage, one that the men have embraced. Their progress has been linear, from missing the postseason to losing in the first game to losing in the championship. This year, Harned hopes the men can advance it one step further.
“Honestly, anything aside from a conference championship will be a disappointment; the end game has always been for us to be the best in conference,” said Harned. “Ever since we beat Cornell, I’ve been thinking of Carroll. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, I’ve been thinking of them. Anything goes and anybody can win. That’s the beauty of tournament soccer.”
Lawrence believes the stage will not prove a problem for his squad. Despite their lack of experience on a tournament stage, he views the youth and relative inexperience as more of a positive than a negative.
“They play with much less fear than an older class would,” Lawrence said of his team. “When you’re so fresh in your collegiate career, you can be more relaxed and not feel the inherent pressures an older player would face É Every time somebody calls this team too young, they find a way to prove them wrong. I welcome the challenge of people saying they’re not ready for this stage.”
Expectations are high for both teams, but as Harned pointed out, playoff soccer is a different animal. For the women, a win on Friday would be historic. For the men, a win on Friday would simply be another step in the journey. But for both, a win will require constant engagement, starting Saturday after the win over Cornell.
“DIII athletes inherently have a lot on their plate,” Colt said. “And that can certainly be a distraction. But everybody on this team has been all soccer all the time lately. We all want and need to win, so we’re making sure every practice counts.”
So the teams, bonded by their common experience, will continue to practice on the Knosher Bowl or at the YMCA to get ready to play on turf. The men’s team will welcome the return of Logie following an MCL sprain that has kept him off the field for weeks. They will make every practice, every early-morning session count, intent on giving themselves the best chance possible to win on Friday. But at the end of the day, the game rests at least in part in the hands of fate.
“I’m a firm believer in the principle that you make your own luck,” said Sheikh. “But I think both teams have every chance to win both contests. It comes down to a series of moments, of calls by the refs, of bounces of the ball. We’ve got to take the most of every chance, and I hope they do. This team, this program, really deserves it.”