BY ADAM ROGAN PHOTO KATIE KURKA
“What the heck just happened? It was such an anticlimax.”
That was Drake Men’s Soccer head coach Gareth Smith’s reaction to the overtime goal surrendered to Evansville University on Nov. 9 in the 91st minute of the second round match in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament that ended Drake’s season on Nov. 9.
Bad luck, mental lapses, just getting beat — whatever you want to call it — Drake (6-12-1, 2-5-1 MVC) ended up on the losing side of more than a couple defining moments throughout the 2016 season.
The goal that ended the Evansville match and the Bulldogs’ season came on a bit of a fluke. A free kick was played into the box and nobody touched it. The ball bounced over redshirt-senior goalkeeper Darrin MacLeod’s head and into the goal. MacLeod had expected somebody on either side to make contact with the ball and redirect it. He and most of his teammates guessed wrong, and they lost as a result.
“The difficulty with college soccer is that the margin of error is very small,” MacLeod said. “It’s taking care of little details.”
Moments defined the season; it wasn’t two or three times that came down to a single play, but nearly every match, particularly during conference.
Five of Drake’s 12 losses came on goals given up in the final five minutes; four of them came during conference play. Of their seven overtime matches, Drake only won two of them with one tie.
Smith blamed lack of focus for some of those shortcomings over the course of the season. Should Drake turn it around next year — its win percentage was .342 in 2016 — its young squad is going to have to get real disciplined, real quick.
Eight of Drake’s 11 starters are graduating, leaving underclassmen to fill some demanding roles in 2017.
“The good thing about being a young team is that they can learn and develop together,” MacLeod said.
There will be some players with experience — junior Nic Jaimes had 16 career points, sophomore Paul Ciszewski scored the 78th minute goal in the conference championship that sent Drake to the NCAA Tournament in 2015, junior defender Aleksi Tuominen played just about as much as the seniors, freshman Antonio Sanchez logged nearly 1,000 minutes in his first season of collegiate soccer — but there will be plenty of new faces.
Drake’s backline will be entirely new starters, save for Tuominen. No returning goalkeeper has seen playtime, as MacLeod has played all but 31 minutes in net for Drake since he was a sophomore.
“We’ll be young, we’ll be inexperienced, we’ll be good, but we’ll be young,” Smith said. “… We’ll be hungry and talented. That might be enough, but (by) year two (the new starters will) have 15 or 20 games under (their) belt.”
MacLeod is putting his faith in the skill level of his up-and-coming teammates to lead the team he’s anchored for the better part of four years.
“Gareth and Kyle, our coaches,” MacLeod said, “they’ve done a really good job and they have a really good ability to bring the best out of players. I can only imagine the recruiting class that they’ll bring in is going to be quite good.”
Smith mentioned that he was looking to fill out the roster with some international talent, players from Europe specifically who are looking to see what American soccer is all about.
But even if he can convince a player or two to make the move, the team is still going to be mostly untested.
“The spine of your team next year is young pups,” Smith said. “That can be a scary moment, but that happens every three to four years.”
Even the 2016 season ended early on in the MVC Tournament, the careers of Drake’s seniors have not been without success.
2015 was the first time Drake won the conference and advanced past the first round in the NCAA Tournament in their 31-year history.
Individually, MacLeod holds just about every career record for Drake goalkeepers: games (76), minutes (6940:22), wins (33), saves (308) and shutouts (19). He was also an All-MVC honorable mention in 2016, as was junior Steven Enna.
Seniors Mueng Sunday and James Wypych were named to the All-MVC First Team. And Sanchez was part of the MVC All-Freshman team.
Wypych tallied 20 goals in his three years at Drake, just one short of being among Drake’s top-10 scorers, to go along with 10 career assists. Sunday matched that mark with 10 assists of his own, seven of which came last year, placing him on Drake’s top-10 list for a single season.
“There’s not many people who can walk about saying they’ve played in NCAA Tournaments and won games and won a conference championship,” Smith said.
Sunday, Wypych, MacLeod and senior James Pendrigh all are looking to play professionally after graduation and have several tryouts and pro days scheduled already, less than a week since their collegiate careers came to a close.
They would be following in the footsteps of defender Alec Bartlett who graduated after the 2015 season and is now playing for the Charlotte Independence in the United Soccer League.
Moving on to the next level is something that Smith has emphasized in the two years since he took over the head coaching position. And as much as his connections and influence can help, the burden of proving yourself worthy of being a part of a pro team falls on the players themselves.
“The biggest message that I’ve tried to share with the group is you’re ultimately in control of your own development,” Smith said. “The one thing about sports, and soccer especially, is I’ve never really seen the game cheat anyone. If you put in the shift in the offseason and you do the right things you’re supposed to be doing, you’ll reap the rewards of it.”