Aug. 26, 2004
Northwestern head coach Tim Lenahan is understandably optimistic heading into the 2004 men's soccer campaign.
His Wildcats are coming off the program's first .500 season since 1988 and registered NU's first win over a Big Ten foe since 1999 by defeating nationally-ranked Michigan in the first round of last year's conference tournament.
"I think, for the first time since I have been here, there are expectations for success," Lenahan said. "We have proven we can compete with the teams in the Big Ten and nationally recognized programs, but now we are looking not only to compete but also succeed."
Lenahan sees the Wildcats' offense as a major strength for this season, thanks in part to the return of NU's three leading scorers from a year ago: Sophomores Gerardo Alvarez (Aurora, Ill./Marmion Academy), Will Nicholas (Orefield, Pa./Parkland) and Daniel Chille (Lake Zurich, Ill./Stevenson).
In fact, every point scored by Northwestern in 2003 came from an underclassman who returns for 2004.
"Our ability to attack will be stronger than it has been in my time here," Lenahan said. "We have a lot of guys who can get forward and create things, and they can do them in variety of ways. They have skill, athleticism, energy and a desire to make things happen in front of the goal."
Alvarez--the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Second Team All-Big Ten selection--scored nine goals last season, the best NU total since 1995. His 25 points were the best for Northwestern since Jonathan Hall scored 28 in 1989.
"With all the attackers we have in our lineup, we will need to show some balance so that we can take pressure off Gerardo," Lenahan said. "Teams will be looking for him this year."
Teams will also be facing a more seasoned cast surrounding Alvarez. Junior defender Jaro Pylypczak (Lombard, Ill./Benet Academy) has started all 40 matches in his NU career and returns with fellow junior fullback Brad Napper (Dallas, Texas/Jesuit College Prep), who also started every match for NU last year.
Juniors Eric Brin (Westlake, Calif./Westlake), Kevin Earnest (Lemont, Ill./Lemont), David Vargas (North Olmsted, Ohio/St. Ignatius) and sophomore Chille all played in every Wildcat match last year, starting more than half of them.
Junior Adam Sirois (Barrington, N.H./Berwick (Maine) Academy) and sophomore Nicholas both started and played in all but one match in 2003.
"Experience is the key everywhere on the field, but especially on defense," Lenahan said. "There is a continuous need to grow and learn game management. After being the youngest team in the conference and one of the youngest nationally for the last few years, we are suddenly a veteran group."
"It is really important that we establish that this season, so we can turn the corner and become a winning program."
Experience is also key for Northwestern in the goal, where junior Brian Heckenbach (Algonquin, Ill./Jacobs) and sophomore Justin Pines (Media, Pa./Strath Haven) return after logging every minute for the Wildcats in 2003. Heckenbach started 16 games last season while Pines started four, registering an .897 save percentage with a 0.68 goals against average.
Joining NU's bevy of returnees is a group of five newcomers, headlined by David Roth (St. Louis, Mo./Chaminade), who won a national championship this summer when his club team, Busch SC (Mo.), took the U.S. Youth Soccer under-18 title.
Even with all of Northwestern's experience, Lenahan knows the importance of starting this season at Square One to keep the Wildcats focused.
"We have guys who are taking ownership of this program," Lenahan said. "They have a great understanding of what NU soccer is about and what we are trying to accomplish. There were growing pains the last few years, but these guys have established what we are about and they are ready to taste success."