This past weekend, on Nov. 10, the soccer teams competed at the NCAA Tournament. The men made their first appearance ever, while the women remain seasoned returners with their third straight appearance.
Senior Rocky Plaza is a main component of the men’s defense and thinks that graduating seniors are leaving a legacy and new standard for the pace of soccer at Knox.
“We kind of raised the standard of Knox soccer, and hopefully for the future they keep building on it,” Plaza said.
Junior Leah Aspinwall of the women’s team echoed that statement.
“Yeah, I definitely think [winning conference] set a new standard for us,” Aspinwall said. “Next year when we’re going at it in season, we’re just going to have this mindset like we need to make it or else it’s just not going to feel right . . . we have to make it or we’re doing something wrong.”
For senior Justin Dunn, it was an experience he’d been waiting for his whole life.
“It was a dream come true. I mean, as a kid, you probably remember wanting to play in March Madness or the college baseball world series or anything, so it lived up to the hype. You’re full of adrenaline the whole week leading up to it,” Dunn said.
This season has been an especially gratifying one for the men. After making a run of conference tournament appearances, they finally broke through with their first win. But what was different this year than in previous years?
“To win games where everything’s on the line, you need to have some luck, but also, we played out of our minds to earn those two goals against St. Norbert,” said Dunn. “It takes a little bit of luck, a little bit of heart, and a bit of up here], like a mentality, grit thing,” pointing to his head.
Senior Corina Leyva reflected on her third personal experience in the tournament.
“Starting with the first, it was an unbelievable experience because we were treated so well,” Leyva said.
Senior Courtney Dramm thinks the team is getting close to reaching their goal of winning an NCAA tournament game.
“We were close, and we’ve gotten closer every year to achieving that goal,” Dramm said. “I think the first year we made it we were just happy to be there, and for the experience we got paired up with WashU, who won the entire thing. Last year we had a good fight against Wheaton, but this year was the closest we’ve been to winning [a game].”
However, the history of success for the women isn’t deeply rooted. This year’s senior class inherited a three-win team in 2014, and in 2015 rattled off 13 wins en route to a Midwest Conference tournament championship appearance.
Senior goalkeeper Sierra Daniger has been a talked-about component of the Fire, contributing amazing defense on-goal, showing in her four shutouts this season. Daniger had a class of 29 her freshman year with the hope to turn the program around.
“[Our program] was a 0-10 team in conference prior to our arrival and we really wanted to turn that around and make it a winning program,” Daniger said. “Did I foresee us going to NCAA’s three times in a row? Not necessarily, but we wanted to build the program up and make it competitive within the region.”
Leyva thinks that the last place finish motivated them to win and gave them a purpose.
“I think we just have a drive to win. When we came in, we were set on not being the last team in conference, and I think that just pushed us to be better every year and every year we set new goals and expectations for ourselves, and our coaches helped push us to be the best we can be,” Leyva said.
In 2016, the women won 19 games, going undefeated in the regular season and winning the conference tournament for the first time. Last year, they managed 14 wins, defeating Monmouth in the conference championship game. With their 13 wins this year, the senior class has amassed 59 wins during their career.
“We started off years ago with a rocky start, and what has really made us successful in my opinion is the work ethic our team puts in on the field and off the field for each other,” Dramm said.
Growing and nurturing a winning culture and mindset was a key factor in the team’s success.
“I think we’ve really built a culture over the past years, like this is my third year, when I came in, I was definitely still growing and this past year we did a lot of work making sure everyone was in it for the right reasons, and that we all had the same aspirations,” Aspinwall said.
One aspect of the men’s team that gives them a competitive edge is diversity.
“Off the field I mean, we’re close, even though everyone’s from a different country it seems like, over half of us are international, we’re still very close with each other, and the team chemistry is well over 100 percent,” said Dunn.
Plaza had similar words.
“I think one thing that really helps is coming from all these different backgrounds, being very diverse. I think another thing is how close we are, we’re like a brotherhood right now. I think this year’s been the closest we’ve ever been,” said Plaza.
Being a part of the Knox soccer program means a lot to those involved. For Plaza, it means being a part of something bigger than yourself.
“It’s bigger than just us, because all the support from the alumni, something I really saw was all the support. When we got to the national tournament, I got so many messages from all the different alumni from ages ago to recent grads that the thing connecting all of us is really great,” Plaza said.
The plan for the future is for the Knox soccer teams to remain competitive in the region and to inch closer to winning a game in the NCAA tournament. The foundation has been laid for future championships.
“I think that [women’s coach Haught-Thompson] has done a really good job of recruiting and getting players here that are not only good soccer players, but also really good people. I hope just to see that culture and high standard through the years and just to keep improving for the program,” said Dramm.
Aspinwall is optimistic about next season for the women’s team.
“I am looking forward to, I guess, being in a senior role and being able to have others come to me for help and being able to reciprocate all the help I’ve had before. I’ve always looked up to the seniors, so this next year is going to be really weird not having anyone to look up to,” Aspinwall said.
As the senior class’s college soccer careers come to a close, some reflected on what they’ve learned over the past four years.
“I have learned how to be very patient with new systems we’ve learned, and also learned how to make friends with people you’re around for a very long time,” said Leyva.
Plaza has learned much in his career here and looks forward to seeing what his team does when he departs.
“One of the biggest things I think I’ve learned from, really, is how to persevere. For the past four years of my Knox career, we’ve made the conference tournament all four years, but then we’ve lost every single year except this year,” said Plaza.
Dramm said it will be difficult to move on.
“We’re a big family, and we love each other. Yeah, it’s hard to graduate and be done with it for me,” she said.
Dunn couldn’t be more thankful for his time spent here.
“It was just a wonderful experience. I never thought I’d be able to have it. I’m glad I decided to come to Knox and play here. I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed it as much anywhere else as much as I did,” Dunn said.
Men’s Game Recap:
The men played their hearts out on a cold Saturday afternoon against a tough Luther College squad. The Fire went toe-to-toe with the Norse for most of the game in what was a tense NCAA first-round matchup. Dunn thought the game went well despite having to adjust to the playing conditions.
“It took us around 20 minutes to get used to the field because we played on it the day before for only 20 minutes, then overnight it got to be 15 degrees, so the field was completely frozen when we played on it, and there wasn’t much grip, so people were sliding all over the place,” the goalkeeper said.
He believes the slick conditions favored the home team at first.
“It really changed the game based on that, so the first 20 minutes they were all over us because we were still getting used to the field. Then we got back into it, no team really had any chances until the end of the first half where [Luther] had a big chance, and we were able to keep them out of the net,” Dunn said.
Then things got better in the second half after the men got the chance to talk strategy during halftime. Unfortunately, they fell in overtime by a score of 1-0. The difference was a Luther goal off a cross to the bottom left corner of the goal just before the 97th minute.
“And then second half I felt we dominated for the most part. We proved to a lot of people we could keep pace with the #13 team in the nation, then unfortunately they got the goal in overtime. It is what it is,” Dunn concluded.
Women’s Game Recap:
The Prairie Fire women returned to NCAA tournament action on Saturday, facing off against the University of St. Thomas. It was a cold Saturday morning, and both teams tried to get something going early. Daniger thought the women played well in the cold weather.
“It went really well actually. We were taking it to St. Thomas fairly well,” Daniger said.
The Tommies got an early goal in the fifth minute off a cross and header, and it proved to be the winning difference. Unfortunately, the Fire women’s comeback efforts were unsuccessful. Despite battling hard throughout the game, the women dropped their first-round game for a third consecutive year.
“They got a really amazing play you know first thing in the game, like four minutes in, but we had many opportunities from there defensively. We were keeping them in place except the one goal. It was an exciting game to be a part of,” Daniger said.
For many of the players, the game just felt like another soccer game.
“We saw it as, we have to go in with the mindset that it’s just another game of soccer,” said Dramm. “Yes, the stakes are bigger and everything, but in order for us to perform at our best, we just take it as another game.”
“We weren’t intimidated by the opponent and we believed in ourselves and knew that we could compete on the national level with them,” Dramm added.