Men’s soccer loaded up for successful season
As smart as the players on the men’s soccer team are, there are many questions that they still cannot answer. They do not know who their new leading scorers will be, how effectively their defense can shut down the best of the University Athletic Association, or whether or not they will earn a shot at the national title.
Nevertheless, what the team does know is that the upcoming season seems promising.
Head coach Joe Clarke said, “We think every time that we take the field that we are capable of beating the team we’re playing, no matter who the team is in college soccer, not just Division III. That’s how we feel about our team, so we have real high hopes on how the year will go.”
The signs that this season could carry unprecedented success for the Bears have been adding up for years. By 1987 the men’s soccer program had posted three national runner-up finishes. In 1998, Clarke brought in his first recruiting class, including last season’s point leader, Casey Lien, and starter Matt Katke. By 1999, the men had claimed their sixth UAA conference title. Clarke’s recruits then became instrumental in attracting the next class of athletes, the current junior class and driving force behind this season’s team.
With the experienced goal keeper Giles Bissonnette, who posted seven shutouts last season, and dependable forward Mark Gister, who scored a pair of game winners, Clarke does not want to underestimate his small senior class.
“When the junior class became freshmen, they kind of grabbed a hold of the soccer team and said we’re going to work really hard at this. They’ve kind of set the tone each year for the classes that have followed them,” said Clarke.
From among this motivational junior class have emerged such standouts as team captain James Ward, midfielder and assist-master Steve Bujarski, and the forward with a fancy finish, Scott Siebers. Junior Mike Torres, having returned from injury, will have the help of other dominating defenders like sophomores Matt Twardowsky and Jeff LaBoskey. The freshman class can look to contribute as well.
Clarke said, “We’ve got a good freshman class. They are going to have to work hard to get playing time because the classes in front of them are so good, but there will be several freshmen who get plenty of playing time over the course of the year, and I want them to play like they are not freshmen.”
In fact, every player on the team has the potential to impact the program.
“We have a really deep bench,” Bujarski assured.
Clarke said he has found “more good players and more competition for positions than has ever existed here before.”
Bujarski’s only expectation of the newcomers is that they will push him and the other Bears harder to maintain their positions. However, if it comes to him sharing more playing time, he will still be happy to see his younger teammates contribute and gain experience this year.
Training over the summer is yet another marker of what should be a productive season.
Bujarski said, “We tried to improve our speed and strength. We just played a lot,” and many upperclassmen stayed in St. Louis to play, training together during the sweltering summer months. “I think we’re very prepared for [this] stage. We’ve only had seven real practices and already we’re very organized. And our team concepts… everyone seems to know them,” he said.
Clarke spoke of the team’s “excellent” preparation, “incredible, absolutely amazing” team attitude, “great leadership,” hard work ethic and extreme fitness level. The team’s talent, motivation and preparation are all signs marking what should become the squad’s road to achieving their goals. Though the men have every reason to predict a 20th consecutive winning season, they will not be satisfied on that alone.
“We all have really high expectations for this year actually,” Bujarksi said. “It’s definitely a goal of ours to win the UAA every year,” said Ward. Luckily, “I think our chances this year are better than in the past years I’ve been here,” he said.
Ward explained, “If we don’t win the UAA, the chances of going to the NCAA tournament are very slim because there are only about five at large bids for about 300 teams that are left.” In other words, “to be guaranteed to get into the tournament you have to win your league,” he said.
Ward would like to see the team return to the NCAA tournament and feels confident that his team could perform well there. However, Ward can well remember a shutout defeat at Rochester and a close 2-3 loss to Chicago, both on the road, costing them the chance for a post-season last fall. The captain has set his sights on leveling the score this season. Thus, Ward anticipates intense rematches with two conference foes and a battle against Carnegie Mellon as well.
Though Gister, Siebers, Bujarski, Ward and others, such as sophomore Allen Gleckner, have made substantial scoring contributions in the past, anything can happen offensively this year.
“It’s hard to tell at this point in the season who will emerge into a role like that,” said Ward.
The key offensively will be seeking clever ways to set up scoring opportunities.
“Offense takes a little bit more creativity,” Clarke said. “Being able to develop the ability to combine as a team and pass the ball in a creative way to get through organized defenses takes a lot more time to develop than it does to get a team to defend like that.”
He explained, “We have some players who are athletic in the attack but…for instance, if Marshall Faulk was our forward, the running back for the Rams, he would probably physically have an edge over everyone he plays. We could put the ball up there to him, he’d outrun everybody, muscle them off the ball, and go get a shot off. We have some good strong players, but nobody like that who is just going to give us goals from nothing. That’s where the chemistry will come in…and where our team defense can initiate and create scoring chances by forcing turnovers close to the other teams goals.”
Strong team chemistry and solid defense are incredible assets for the Bears this season.
Clarke said, “Our greatest strength is our chemistry. The team seems to have a lot of trust in each other that they are all going after it together. Not so much based on what they’re individually going to get out of it but what they are going to do together as a team, whatever it takes.”
Ward feels a team bond on and off the field. He said, “If you look at the way guys interact off the field, most of the guys are really good friends with each other and live with each other, which definitely builds team chemistry. In terms of on the field you can just tell that we have a sense of each other.”
Having deep junior and sophomore classes that have seen significant playing time together has added the team’s reading each other well on the field, said Bujarski. An improved ability to maintain possession of the ball is another of the team’s advantages.
“We’re making the other team chase after us,” said Bujarksi. “That’s our main concept, keeping the ball. If we have the ball they have to try to work hard to get it from us.” Also, “When we keep the ball, we work around the back, we switch the field we’re able to switch the point of attack really fast so we open up spaces, get gaps and isolate players. That’s where our attack comes from most of the time.”
Clarke likes the speed at which his offense operates, but Ward still thinks the team can play quicker. “The quicker we play, the easier it will be for us to hold the ball and do well in games. And we just need to think a little quicker and react to how the other team is going to play quicker,” Ward said. Thankfully “In the few games we’ve had we’ve improved tremendously,” he added.
The team has already played three scrimmages, in which they gave up only one goal total. “That’s always encouraging,” Bujarski said. In fact, Bujarski has been very pleased with team’s defense so far. He said, “On defense, we work hard together as an entire team. Because of the way we play, everyone has a responsibility, so everyone needs to work hard to fulfill his responsibility.”
Thus, “The key to defense is unselfishness,” said Clarke. It means “that you are willing to work hard and in a disciplined way to prevent the other team from getting in positions to score goals, and it means every single layer doing it. If we do that our defense will be great, and all indications are that we will be able to do that.”
Clarke cannot help thinking that student attendance could also push the team towards greatness. The program would love to return to the days when contention for the national title is the norm. “It would be great to return to that. But for us to do that, the students would have to come see us play before,” said Clarke.
Clarke said with both laughter and honesty, “Right now our average attendance is based on how many girlfriends we have and how many parents happen to be visiting.”
While attendance figures may be uncertain, one thing we can be certain of is Clarke’s promise: “We have a team that is going to be really fun to watch.”
Popularity: 1% [?]