Losing 4 key ‘brothers,’ team reflects on season

| Sports Reporter
Senior John Hengel heads the ball in the season finale against the University of Chicago on Nov. 7. (Matt Mitgang | Student Life)

Senior John Hengel heads the ball in the season finale against the University of Chicago on Nov. 7. (Matt Mitgang | Student Life)

The Washington University men’s soccer team ended its 2009 season on Nov. 7 at the University of Chicago. After finishing fourth in the University Athletic Association and not receiving an at-large NCAA tournament bid, games ended sooner than the close-knit group of players had anticipated.

“I think in terms of our win-loss record, [the season] was not very successful and not as successful as we hoped,” senior co-captain Nat Zenner said. “[But] we really became a family over the course of the year, and that’s something that I’m really proud of and something that in the long run is probably more important than the wins and losses.”

The Bears began the season with several ties, went undefeated for their first seven games, and received votes in the national coaches’ poll. For many senior players, an Oct. 4 matchup with Emory was one of the season’s highlights. The game was the first time in six years that Wash. U. defeated the Eagles.

“It was nice to do something the past six teams couldn’t quite get accomplished, and it was nice to talk to the alumni after and say, ‘We were finally able to do it, this is for you guys,’ because Emory is not the nicest or classiest team—at least in the past, they haven’t been,” Zenner said.

Later in the season, Wash. U. could not sustain its winning ways. After an Oct. 11 loss to Carnegie Mellon University, then ranked No. 3 in the nation, the Bears went on to lose seven of their last 10 games.

“We struggled with beating the teams that we should have beaten. We usually did well against the teams we were not favored against,” senior Ryan Grandin said. “We pretty much played to the level of the teams we played against.”

In addition to Zenner, a UAA honorable mention honoree, and Grandin, the Bears lose co-captain John Hengel and goalie John Smelcer. Hengel was the team’s leading scorer with seven goals. Players noted that on a team that struggled with scoring, Hengel’s offensive abilities will be missed.

“New goalie next year, new leading scorer next year, new captain center back, next year. Those are big holes, those are big go-to players,” junior David Klein said. “Give the ball to Johnny up top, and he could hold the ball and create offense.”

Smelcer ended his career at fifth all-time for shutouts, and the team finished the year with a .86 goals against average.

“Smelcer—it’s not just the fact that he saves all the shots, but he kicks the ball a mile, so there’s a lot to fill,” sophomore forward Patrick McLean said.

Zenner and Hengel guided the team along with junior co-captain Alex Neumann. Hengel expressed the importance of leading fellow players by example.

“I tried to not get heated in tough games and overreact to calls or anything,” Hengel said. “You set the standard for the other kids…Really, how hard I work doesn’t just affect myself, but it influences the team, so I always tried to work as hard as I could.”

Team members highlighted Zenner’s vocal leadership.

“Nat was always really encouraging, I’m going to miss that the most. If I did something good on the field, made a good pass, made a good tackle, he was always there,” freshman Brian Wright said. “He was always about positive reinforcement, which is awesome.”

Senior team members explained the importance of their soccer careers to their experience at Wash. U. For many, the team provided a support system and network of close friendship.

“I’m really close with the guys on the team, and I can’t imagine not having them, and I can’t really imagine not playing soccer because I’ve had such a passion for soccer my entire life,” Hengel said.

For the team members that remain, preparation for next season has already begun. The dissatisfaction of ending without an appearance in the NCAA tournament provides motivation.

“We’re already very motivated for next year; we definitely have our minds set on accomplishing those two goals that we didn’t reach this year,” Klein said. “We all have the team goals in mind, and we’re using our personal goals to reach those.”