Fare thee well, men’s soccer

Alexander Weck

The drive to Dr. John R. Minahan Stadium in De Pere is always dissonantly dreary. Over the past four autumns, I have made this voyage to the home of the St. Norbert Green Knights precisely six times. The commute is particularly noteworthy because of its stereotypically Northeastern Wisconsin billboards depicting such priceless goods and services as Hummers, exotic lingerie, and pole dances from “The Snap.”
Beyond these roadside amusements lies a dull plain littered with sprawling development. Sun blanketed by overcast skies, the trip always conjures in ominous dreadfulness. The sun has never shone for more than five minutes during any Lawrence men’s soccer game there.
Just over three years ago, I first made the dull journey to the homestead of the Green Knights. One thing was profoundly different then: I was on the team. That game was ironically the best game that Lawrence has played while visiting Norbert. A 1-0 loss in frigidly dismal conditions, however, put us at 2-5 in the Midwest Conference. We would later lose two winnable conference matches to finally pull the plug on an atrocious season. “I really felt like quitting,” states senior midfielder Richard Amankwah. Many of us did.
As a lowly bench player who saw a total of 17 minutes of playing time all season, I hung up my cleats at the end of the season for the more glamorous lifestyle of the boisterous supporter by day and the sports writer by night – your run-of-the-mill journalihooligan.
It would have been easy to write off Coach Blake Johnson as an incompetent leader with false dreams of taking a team anywhere, but he has proven otherwise.
“My first year was a frustrating one, but the following three were very good, with this past year’s team being what I believe to be the best soccer team Lawrence has fielded for many years,” says four-year veteran Elliott “Bobbo” Spruell.
The team has been nothing but a turnaround story since that improper introduction to Lawrence soccer my freshman year. Since then their conference record has been inverted from 2-7 to an impressive 7-2 finish this year. Even more inspiring has been their rise in postseason success. Eliminated in the quarterfinals both of the past two years, the Vikes moved one step further this year by making it to the conference finals.
The progress transcends statistics as well. In more than one way, the boys have become more unified. “The team cohesion on and off the field was better this year than it has ever been,” notes Spruell. The departure of the flashy striker Rodrigo Gomes after last season has been a blessing in surprise for the team’s frontfield. It has allowed the squad to develop as an integrated attacking front. Sophomore Joe Sluhoski is a case in point of a forward blossoming in the presence of a new system involving more combination soccer and less individual flare. His point total increased from 4 to 17 between last year and this.
The recruiting class of this year brought in a core of halfbacks and fullbacks that should continue to be a backbone of the team. Given some height, the Viking midfield could become the team’s strongest component.
Yet the impediment to greatness still stands: Norbert 5, Lawrence 1.
St. Norbert runs its squad like an effective boss ran a city in the mid 20th century. Green Knights coach Dale Rhodes has connections to local high schools that almost mindlessly feed players of great size and talent into the program. There is no question that this will continue into the future. The Green Knights have separated themselves from the rest of the conference and are likely to remain dominant unless another team makes a run at them.
This year’s championship final score, albeit unrepresentative of the game as a whole, remains a symbol of the barrier beyond which the team hopes to advance in coming years. The match exhibited a spectrum of emotions ranging from pity to blissful excitement. With two quick scores, the Green Knights not only took complete control of the game but removed senior goalkeeper Matt Wolin from the game with a nagging hand injury.
The boys in blue redeemed themselves, however, by playing the full 90 with heart and composure. They rallied around backup goalkeeper Hunter Ryan, playing in his first collegiate game. In years past, a scenario like this in the playoffs would have caused the match to devolve into a slugfest, but not this year. The fact that the Vikes took the loss in stride and played within the laws of the game says leaps and bounds about how they have changed from last year. Everyone hates St. Norbert, but hatred should fuel competition, not cheap hacks.
The most impressive part about this season came off the field, with the squad’s handling of the tragic death of Kobby Buanya. Showing the powerful humanitarian effort that a team can manifest, the boys raised over $2,000 for Kobby’s family, dedicated the season to him, and donned black T-shirts with his name and number on them before every game. All members of the LU Viking men’s soccer deserve utmost respect for their conduct in the wake of this loss.
Having been with the team in various forms over the past four years, it is not hard to list a set of moments that have seemed purely magical. The last great freshman initiation in 2002, Mark Wendling and Brian Payne’s goal celebration reconstruction of ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware,’ Brian Harks’ goal to beat Norbert at home in 2003, and the great Monmouth mudslide and tornado of ’04 come to mind immediately. However, because of its complete timeliness, Matt Wolin’s goal off Spruell’s cross in the 86th minute of this year’s conference final puts an absolutely perfect conclusion to the tale.
Thanks LU men’s soccer, thanks seniors, and perhaps the sun will shine in De Pere some day.