Whether injury or learning, the 2017 soccer season looked as though they would fall short of the teams high expectations. As Olivet Nazarene University (ONU) soccer for both the men’s and women’s teams comes to a close this winter, both have emerged with significant experiences and stories to tell.
For the men, the story seemed to be one of disappointment. The injury-plagued team made for a difficult situation as Head Coach David Blahnik and his staff moved to reconfigure team positions and tactics.
“This season was unlike any season I have been a part of in my 11 seasons of coaching,” Coach Blahnik said. “We had an unusual amount of injuries…It took some trial and error at times to figure out what worked with our healthy personnel.”
Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference (CCAC) All-Conference Defender Brian Pfaff (JR/Wheaton, Ill.) cited lack of teamwork and playing style for the slow start.
“It was just hard for our team to play together,” Pfaff said. “We weren’t passing really well, we couldn’t figure out everyone’s playing styles because we had a lot of new players. I think that first conference game, everything clicked, and then we won (four) in a row.”
Despite the start, the team eventually placed second in the CCAC with a 13-3-2 record in the regular season. They then received a bid to play in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) National Tournament, where they lost 0-1 tough battle to No. 4 Missouri Valley.
As the off-season sets in, everyone is looking forward to improving their game in preparation for next season. Foremost among them is Coach Blahnik, who looks forward to improving the team defensively.
“Traditionally we are one of the strongest defensive teams in the country,” Blahnik said. “But we struggled a bit this year, and that is something we will definitely improve.”
Blahnik is still proud of his team, even if the results fell short of last year’s undefeated record in the CCAC. “I will always remember this team for their perseverance and commitment to working hard in practice and games… I can live with losses when our guys are preparing well and working hard in games.”
ONU Men’s Soccer had five players on the CCAC All-Conference Team and five more earned NAIA-Daktronics Scholar-Athlete Honors. The future for the team is bright, and returning players like Pfaff have a lot to look forward to.
“We just need guys working hard and pushing each other,” Pfaff said. “Making sure we have really good team chemistry for the spring games and then for next year in the fall.”
The women’s season kicked off badly, sitting at a disappointing 2-4-1 record by the time CCAC conference play started. The Tigers gained their momentum by going 11-2 leading up to the NAIA National Tournament; but it was not achieved without some adjustments. Sophomore defender Bri Hollowell told of the team’s experience learning a new formation from the coaching staff.
“The coaching staff and all the players were all learning (our new system),” Hollowell said. “And trying to figure out what worked best…we were playing a 3-5-2 (system), where before we were playing a 4-4-2 (system).”
Head Coach Bill Bahr identified factors such as a difficult preseason schedule, roster adjustments, and nerves for the disappointing start to the season.
“We had a really tough preseason schedule,” Coach Bahr said. “We had some concerns early on about how our back line would be…going into the season we lost an All-American center-back and our starting goalkeeper and that created a little bit of some nerves going into the season.”
ONU faced a slew of five NAIA ranked opponents before conference play, with three of them being in the top ten. Even given this tough start, Coach Bahr and his staff recognized that the team was in needed discipline if they were to outplay their opponents.
“Until they started regularly outplaying their opponents,” Coach Bahr said. “The certain measurable standards like fifty-fifty’s, winning second balls, outshooting our opponents… until they started doing [those] on a regular basis, they were going to lose those privileges.”
The team lost use of team locker rooms and team practice equipment for a period of time. It was then that the turning point came, giving the women’s team their nine-game win streak following a double-overtime loss at St. Francis. They would go on to clinch the CCAC regular season title and a bid to the NAIA National Tournament. Unfortunately, the lady tigers would fall 0-1 to No. 15 The Master’s University in the first round of the NAIA National Tournament.
ONU’s women’s team will only have one senior going into next year, meaning the younger players will have big shoes to fill coming off a season like this one.
“It will be a lot younger team next year,” Hollowell said. “So it will be interesting seeing [how] all of the players, a lot of us, will have to step up and figure out how we’re going to do it…but I think we’ll do really well, we’ve got a great group of girls.”