Grappling a mid-season groove

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Grappling a mid-season groove

North Central’s young soccer squad is maturing along with the season

The mid-season month of October has been a positively refining period for the men’s soccer team, and the drama will likely double with the possibility of November nationals on the horizon. The Rams aggressively scourged the Providence University defense with a 4-2 win on Oct. 2., then they battled Northwestern University to a nil-nil, double overtime draw on Oct. 7, before earning a couple of well-fought 1-0 wins against Martin Luther on Oct. 10, and Northland College on Oct. 17.

“I’ve only beat Providence once before,” says head coach Jake Smith. “And to score four goals against them is fantastic. It’s a big result for us.”

Having previously lost away at Northwestern, 2-0 on Sept. 15, NCU had to make some adjustments this time around.

“One of the biggest problems we’ve had to fix is the spacing between our lines,” says Smith. “Our midfield tends to get too close to our defense, and disconnected from the forwards, or too close to the forwards and disconnected from the defense; and we have this gap.”

Smith plays a flat back four, which makes the issue more difficult to manage. So after assessing possible solutions, Smith says he had center backs Luke Majerle and David Afolabi play more of a stopper role to help fill the empty gap.

Also aiding in the improved result against Northwestern was a greater understanding of Northwestern’s tactics.

“They tend to have a long-ball kind of style — punch it forward to the forwards, and we were much more ready for that than we were the first time,” says Smith.  

Though a deciding goal kept eluding the Rams, this tie provided a welcomed achievement.

As Smith says, “This is the first time in a long time that we haven’t lost to them, so it was great for our program.”

Except for a couple of standout score lines, goals have not come easy for the Rams this season.

“We’ve struggled to score for quite a while, we need to be more dangerous in the final third,” says Smith. With this stint in conversion aversion, the 1-0 win over Martin Luther on Oct. 10 was an incremental but invigorating result, especially for freshman forward Gabe Dawson who scored the game’s only goal by coolly slotting it in the bottom corner after a well-worked string of passes.

Adding to the confidence inflation is an understanding of Martin Luther’s ability, as they had beaten Northwestern 4-1 going into the match against North Central. The Rams scudded through the week on the sails of this success, with back-to-back away wins against Crown College on Oct. 13, and Faith Baptist Bible College on Oct. 15.

Having narrowly lost to Crown in the first matchup, the second game proved to be just as contentious and even more controversial. The referee threatened to eject Smith and assistant coach Nate Kemper after a series of questionable calls that provoked the Rams bench to passionate objection.

Despite the curious judgment of the officials, tension was abated for Smith and his side in overtime. Sophomore midfielder Jake Loukinen headed down a corner-kick to junior forward Steven Klapak, who heel-flicked a tasty golden goal that sent the Rams into a field-storming celebration. Having developed an appetite for game winners, it was Klapak again who scored in the 69th minute to give NCU their win over Faith Baptist Bible College.

Klapak attributes his duel, late-game goals, at least in part, to the competitive environment surrounding the team.

“I think that we are all starting to understand that every minute of playing time can be valuable,” says Klapak. “Plus the addition of so many new players pushes everyone to play better.”

Klapak is involved in NCU Chorale, and has not been able to practice much. He therefore has not seen as much playing time as he would like, but according to him, Smith has emphasized that each player give 100 percent, no matter how much game time they get.

“Spending time on the bench made me appreciate my playing time a lot more,” says Klapak. “So I’ve really had to give everything during the time I’ve had.”

Thanks to the new field in Elliot Park, Klapak is able to get more practice time than he did last year, despite his hectic schedule.

“It’s great to be able to stay after and work on stuff since the field is so close,” he explains. But players are not the only ones enjoying the next-door accessibility of the new field.

“We have people coming and going — they’ll stop by to watch a game for 15 minutes before they go home from work, or go to class.” says Smith. “They couldn’t do this at our Coon Rapids field.”

Smith also notes that the close proximity is much easier for the game day crew, who just has to carry their equipment across the street rather than hauling it to and from Coon Rapids.  

According to Smith, Elliot Park will “become a great venue to play in, and with a great view of the skyline, it’s just a cool place to be.” As the Rams continue to build home-field history and tradition, Smith thinks even opposing teams will  “really love playing here.”

Elliot Park has an opportunity to not only boast a scenic environment, but a festive one as well.

“The field offers a great surface, we do a good job of hosting, and we can continue to build our fandom and a stronger soccer culture,” says Smith.

Although this kind of cultural evolution is a gradual process, fan support might quickly multiply, as the Rams enter the NCCAA regional tournament and the UMAC playoffs. After a disappointing loss against the University of Minnesota Morris on Saturday the 24th, the Rams are placed fourth in the UMAC conference, and they will host either Northwestern or Bethany Lutheran in the UMAC playoffs.

This will be the first UMAC playoff appearance in NCU history.

North Central remains the top seed in their NCCAA conference, and have thus earned a first game bye in the regional tournament. They will play for the NCCAA regional championship on Saturday Oct. 31 at 2:15 p.m. With a win, the NCU men’s soccer team will go to nationals for the first time since 2011.