For the Knox athletic program, men’s soccer has always been a shining star. With eight wins already under their belt in the 2017 season, the boys of Knox Soccer (8-2-3) are determined to make this year better than the last. And with a tie-game against Wartburg College on Monday, they’re just shy of maintaining their 12 game record from the previous two years. In the first months of the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Men’s Soccer won 75 percent of their games.
Head Coach Tyler Sheikh, in his third season with Knox, says that with the experience gained by the upperclassmen players, the team has managed to steadily improve.
“We’re the same team, just a little bit better,” he said. “Everyone’s a year older. Seniors being seniors, juniors being juniors, they feel a little bit more immediacy and maturity. And we’ve got good balance between youth and veteran players.”
This year, the men’s soccer roster is the biggest it’s ever been in the history of the program, with 37 players from 15 countries. The 10 freshmen additions to the team, representing five of the fifteen countries, have so far, Sheikh believes, managed to impress and bestow in the coaching staff the faith that the team will flourish this season.
In cases for many college sports programs, attaining a starting position as a freshman is near impossible, especially for competitive teams like Knox. For men’s soccer, however, the undeniable skill set of Sheikh’s class of 2021 has proved to be the exception to the rule.
“We absolutely love this freshman class… They’ve got great attitudes and they’re competing well,” Sheikh said.
Alessandro Benelli, a first-year from Milan, Italy, has started every game this season as center back, a position he shares with senior and team captain Phelipe Graske. Benelli is no stranger to soccer, having played at a semi-professional level on US Seregno Calcio in Milan in his last year of high school.
For many international student-athletes and soon-to-be freshmen, choosing what program to commit to can be challenging. Fortunately for Benelli, the decision to attend Knox and participate in its soccer program was simple.
“I received many offers from different colleges. In the end, Knox was the only one that combined a great soccer program, very good academics, and a point that I’m really appreciating now, nice diversity,” Benelli said in an email to TKS.
Benelli finds that the adjustment from the European to American style of soccer is made easier for him by the strong sense of leadership from those around him on the team. And being one of the youngest players on the team, and also an international student, knowledgeable and consistent guidance can make all the difference.
“It’s very different because even though I’m just a freshman, I’m not feeling at the bottom of the team,” he said. “Of course, American soccer is very diverse, but now through trainings I’m learning how to manage in particular the very hard physical part of it. Moreover, coaches here think about what kind of person you are and try to teach you the Knox values, which I think is very important.”
Although he is a long way from Milan, Bellini has found another home here on Knox’s men’s soccer team.
“The best part of it is that we are a family. We always help each other and in my soccer career. I have never seen a united group like this. Living every day with your friends is an amazing thing, and I am really proud of being part of it,” Benelli said.
The Prairie Fire is set to play Grinnell College on Saturday, Oct. 7, at 3:30 p.m. at Jorge Prats Field.