STORY BY ADAM ROGAN
Every player dreams of making that one big goal, putting their team on top as the clock ticks down.
“It’s good to see all your hard work in the season to pay off; it doesn’t always,” head coach Gareth Smith said modestly.
Paul Ciszewski did just that in truly dramatic fashion, scoring his first collegiate goal after coming off the bench to give Drake a 1-0 victory over the SIU-Edwardsville Cougars in the Missouri Valley Conference Championship finals.
After 77 minutes of scoreless soccer, freshman Nic Jaimes took a corner kick for Drake. Four Bulldogs filed into the penalty box, but a pair of Cougar headers initially got the ball away from the goal line. They didn’t clear it fully and Ciszewski, a redshirt freshman, took advantage.
From more than 30 yards out, Ciszewski connected on the ball in midair for his only shot of the tournament and blasted it goalwards. Goalkeeper Kyle Dal Santo made a diving attempt for the ball, but never had a chance as Ciszewski’s shot was too powerful and was perfectly placed just inside the left goalpost. It was the second shot and the first goal of Ciszewski’s college career.
“I think (Ciszewski’s) goal is a testament to how hard he’s worked all season,” Smith said. “When opportunity meets preparation, then success happens.”
Just looking at the first half-hour of the match, long before the goal, Drake coming out on top would’ve seemed like an impossibility. Edwardsville had three separate significant chances on goal in the first seven minutes of play, but Drake goalkeeper Darrin MacLeod became an impenetrable wall in front of the net.
Drake’s early defensive stand was highlighted by a brilliant diving save from MacLeod in the seventh minute, his fingertips just barely making contact with the ball to deflect it away from danger.
SIUE took 13 shots throughout the match, four of them on goal, but none of them were able to find the back of the net. The Bulldogs only had four shots, but were able to capitalize when they needed it most.
Another cause of the apparent lack of offensive production was the fact that junior midfielder Mueng Sunday, Drake’s assist leader, didn’t suit up for the match after going down with an injury in Drake’s 1-0 semifinal win against Bradley.
Drake showed incredible resilience in the match’s final minutes, despite playing three matches in five days. SIUE had only played two in that same time frame after earning a first-round due to after placing first in the MVC during the regular season.
Smith was able to keep his team fresh by utilizing a deep bench throughout the conference tournament. At least 16 Bulldogs saw playing time in each playoff match.
Some high-effort play from James Wypych and Steven Enna at the end of the match helped run the clock out for the Bulldogs, forcing the Cougars defense and midfield to waste time with nonthreatening passes.
Still, the Cougars’ superior speed gave Smith and his defense reason to worry. Edwardsville has arguably the best pair of attackers in the MVC with Devyn Jambga and Jabari Danzy. They combined for 11 goals in 2015 and Danzy had already scored twice against Drake this season.
The Bulldogs were able to control them by implementing superb positioning throughout the match and clutch defending, making open shots on the net scarce.
The defenders faced the most pressure when Drake was caught in over-pursuit. When the Bulldogs saw a possibility to score they sent everybody up to go for goal, which left them susceptible to counter-attacks.
SIUE’s speedy attackers nearly made Drake pay for this several times, as they found themselves close to striking distance without too many defenders in their path. But the Drake D and MacLeod’s four saves were able to break up the attacks, frustrating Edwardsville’s forwards.
Drake’s backline was able to continuously deflect shots and disrupt passes when they struggled to clear the ball. The Cougars’ attack seemed endless, as they controlled the ball much more than the Bulldogs did, particularly in the first half.
One of the biggest moments in the game was a risky slide tackle from Alec Bartlett, who already had a yellow card in the match, that stopped a potential breakaway for Jambga that could’ve put the Cougars on the board first. Bartlett made the stop just outside of Drake’s penalty box and, had he missed, MacLeod would’ve been called on to make a save one-on-one. But he was never put into that position throughout the match thanks to Bartlett and the rest of the defense’s timely defending.
The championship match also functioned as a bit of revenge for the Bulldogs. SIUE had managed to win in Des Moines on Oct. 24 3-2 via golden goal in the second period of extra time to end Drake’s then undefeated conference season. Still, it’s clear that the Bulldogs would rather have the upset in the MVC Championship than a win in a regular season matchup.
Four Bulldogs were named to the MVC All-Tournament team, the most represented program on the list.
Redshirt senior defender Bartlett was vital for the Bulldogs in the championship match and throughout the tournament. He was a no-brainer to be named to the All-Tournament team.
Grunert, who was also a staple of Drake’s backline both during the season and in the tournament, joined him.
It also wasn’t a surprise when MacLeod was named to the team after having three shutouts in three matches.
Redshirt senior midfielder Kyle Whigham rounded out the list and was honored as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. He may not have had much of a presence on the stat sheet in Drake’s past three games – and has only scored one goal throughout his collegiate career – but his presence couldn’t have been overlooked on the field. He was a force on free balls, restarts and in ball control on both ends of the pitch. He kept the pressure off the Drake defense and helped generate attacks for the Bulldog strikers.
It should also be noted that Jaimes played incredibly well in the tournament. He had goals in each of the first two matches and his corner led to Drake’s only goal in the championship. It’s surprising that he wasn’t named as the fifth Drake player on the All-Tournament team.
However, there is logic behind why Jaimes may not have been placed on the list. It was Drake’s defense that won the day in all three playoff matches. Not a single goal was surrendered, even though opposing offenses were still able to generate plenty of chances.
Drake will take on the Kentucky Wildcats on Nov. 19, a team that Drake Men’s Soccer has never faced in its 30 year history.
It will be Drake’s fourth match in eight days, which can be taxing on the athletes. Kentucky has only played three games so far in November and will be entering the tournament after five days of rest.
“We have to … regenerate and get the guys to recover,” Smith said. “We have to stick to the things we do well, stay organized defensively and make no silly mistakes.”
Kentucky enters the match after suffering a 1-0 loss to FIU in their conference championship semifinal, a loss that dropped the Wildcats out of the NCAA top 25.
“They’re a very good opponent and one of the top teams in the country,” Smith said.
Even if they may have been hurt by the tough loss, beating the Wildcats won’t be easy. They’ve given up the sixth least goals in the nation this season, mostly as a result of the play of their goalkeeper, Callum Irving, who many consider to be the best goalie in collegiate soccer.
“We’re going to have very few chances in the game,” Smith said. “What we need to do is make sure to execute on the chances we do get … Even the best teams can be beat. It’s all about who can be better on the day.”
This will be the Bulldogs’ third appearance in the NCAA Men’s Soccer Championship. The last time the Bulldogs made it to the big dance was in 2009, when they were able to reach the Elite Eight despite having entered the tournament unranked. They fell 2-1 to no. 5 North Carolina.
Should the Bulldogs upset Kentucky, they will take on a rested no. 12 Creighton squad in the second round after their first round bye. Drake and Creighton have already met once this season — on Oct. 6, when Creighton was still ranked no. 1. Drake was able to take a 1-0 lead in that match, but Creighton came back with two late goals to steal the upset away from the Bulldogs.
And if the Bulldogs are able to pull off that upset they could face North Carolina again, who is ranked fifth. If nothing else, it’s clear that the Bulldogs have some chances to exact revenge on past enemies.