Aug. 27, 2008
For many years, the words “expectations” and “Northwestern men’s soccer” haven’t exactly gone hand-in-hand. But as Bob Dylan once said, times they are a changin’.
Long gone are the days when a match against the Wildcats could be penciled in as a win. With three NCAA Championship appearances in the past four years, not only has the Northwestern program elevated itself to being a force within the Big Ten, but on the national scene as well.
The Wildcats are looking to continue that winning tradition in 2008 as 16 letterwinners and nine starters return from a squad that went 12-5-3 a year ago and at one point earned the program’s highest national ranking ever at No. 3.
“Even though the NCAA bids were accomplished over the course of four years, I think each of those three seasons we had completely different teams,” said Northwestern head coach Tim Lenahan. “I think the sign of a good program is that even as players graduate, the team is able to maintain its high standards. We have an expectation of success and that, combined with high standards, has allowed us to grow in spite of huge turnover of players to graduation.”
NU needs to replace just two departed seniors, but the duo made quite an impact in turning the program around. Along with steady defender Matt Witt, the Wildcats need to account for the loss of David Roth, the first All-American in school history. A first-team All-Big Ten pick each of the last two years, Roth finished his Northwestern career as the school’s all-time leader in assists while ranking third in points.
“More so than replacing Dave on the field, replacing his personality and energy will be the challenge,” said Lenahan. “As great of a player as Dave was, he brought great enthusiasm to every training session and his ability to involve his teammates in the game added to that energy. We will be a different team without Dave and his teammates understand that they have to step up and fill the void. No one player will fill the void but it will be a shared effort with Mark Blades, Eamon O’Neill, Geoff Fallon and Drew Ratner picking up the leadership roles.”
Despite the loss of Roth, the Wildcats return the majority of a solid nucleus that helped them earn the No. 9 national seed for the 2007 NCAA Tournament. Four individuals who earned All-Big Ten recognition last season are back, including first-team midfielder Carl Pett and second-team selections in defender Blades, midfielder Piero Bellizzi and goalkeeper Misha Rosenthal.
Bellizzi, who was also recognized as the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, finished second on the squad with classmate Matt Eliason with 16 points a year ago. Pett proved to be a dynamic player in the midfield in 2007, including being named the national player of the week by numerous media outlets after posting two goals and an assist in a win over an Ohio State squad that went on to be national runners-up. NU welcomes back a number of other individuals up front with the capability of finding the back of the net, including O’Neill, Fallon, Tyler Voigt and Drew Pavlovich. Kevin Valenta, who took a medical redshirt last season, and highly touted newcomer Peter O’Neill will also push for playing time.
In the back, Northwestern led the Big Ten with a 0.67 goals-against average during the 2007 season. Even though Witt has graduated, a veteran group returns. Blades, Ratner, Pat Coleman and Brian Usinger all return as starters, while sophomores Jack Hillgard and Cody Stanley each earned valuable experience in the spring.
Between the pipes, Rosenthal returns for his junior season after setting an NU single-season record with a 0.63 goals-against average and tying another with seven shutouts a year ago. Despite missing seven-plus matches mid-season with an injury, he was still impressive enough to earn All-Big Ten distinction. He will be backed up by redshirt freshman Drew Kotler and true freshman Jonathan Harris.
With all of the talent returning, Lenahan believes that his team has the credentials once again hold opposing attackers in check.
“We have to replace Matt Witt who was a very solid player for us,” Lenahan said. “Defensively, Drew Ratner becomes one of the few fifth-year seniors we have had here, having deferred medical school for a year. Mark Blades has established himself as one of the top left backs in the country and Pat Coleman and Brian Usinger will hopefully continue their improvement. Misha really had a breakthrough year last year and look forward to having him between the pipes for a full year. With a veteran crew of the players mentioned, we again hope to be among the Big Ten’s best defenses.”
An always challenging Big Ten slate awaits the Wildcats once again in 2008, but the squad is once again focused on aiming for the top of the standings.
“Obviously making the NCAA tournament and giving yourself a chance to win a national championship has been and will continue to be our preeminent goal,” Lenahan said. “One way to guarantee yourself that opportunity is to win the Big Ten Championship. As much success as we’ve had in the past, one goal that has eluded this program has been to win a Big Ten Championship. With a veteran group this year of six seniors, it would be a great way to cap off their careers with the school’s first-ever Big Ten title. Success ultimately comes down to scoring goals and not giving up many. We want to continue to be among the league leaders in both categories if we are going to make our goals become reality.”
Northwestern opens its regular season August 29 and 31 when it hosts the annual Lakeside Classic, facing San Francisco and IUPUI.