It’s been a year of change for Loyola’s men’s soccer team. Last November, fresh off a 2-0 Horizon League Conference Tournament Finals loss to Cleveland State University, Loyola announced that they would not renew the appointment of Head Coach Brendan Eitz.
The search for a new head coach did not take long. On Dec. 20, 2012, Loyola announced that Neil Jones, assistant head coach at Northwestern University, would take over the head coaching job. Jones was excited that he was hired in the winter as opposed to the summer. “It’s so great to have a whole, entire spring with the team,” Jones said.
Since Jones was able to spend the spring getting used to the dynamic of the team and getting to know the players, the summer workouts were a lot more intense.
“This is the hardest and most rewarding preseason we’ve had here,” junior forward/midfielder Brian Bement said. He emphasized the drastic increase in intensity that has followed Jones’ arrival at Loyola.
If the new coach wasn’t enough for the team, in April another bombshell dropped: Loyola’s move to the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC).
“Aside from having to totally redo my schedule? It’s great news. It’s huge for us,” Jones jokingly reminisced about hearing the news. He is excited about the recruiting potential the Missouri Valley brings. It opens the St. Louis market, a known soccer hotbed that features a number of Jesuit high schools.
One of the biggest challenges the season presents is the grueling Valley schedule. While there are 10 teams overall in the league, only seven schools compete in men’s soccer. The schedule is set up as a round-robin where every team plays every other team only once.
Jones explained the most difficult part of that setup. “Three of those six games, so basically half your conference schedule, is within seven days.” That means that nine out of the 18 points available for conference play will be up for grabs within a week.
The move to the Missouri Valley also provides opportunity for the Ramblers to gain some revenge against a budding rival: Bradley University. Loyola has played the Braves twice over the last two years. In 2011, following their Horizon League Championship run, the men took on Bradley in the opening round of the NCAA Soccer Tournament. They lost 2-1 to end the Ramblers’ surprising run. Last season, the two teams met again at Hoyne field. The home field didn’t provide any help to Loyola, who lost 3-0.
Loyola also played new conference foe Drake University last season and, once again, could not find a way to win, falling 3-1.
For players like Bement, the new season means stepping into more important roles. As underclassmen become upperclassmen, they are forced to become leaders for the team.
For Bement, it’s just business as usual. “I’ve just worked as hard as I can, and hopefully the freshmen see that,” he said.
Jones is hopeful that Hoyne Field can become a difficult place for opposing teams to play. “We don’t want to sit back and let teams take it to us, we want to take it to teams,” he said.
While as of press time the Missouri Valley Conference preseason men’s soccer rankings have not been released, judging by the recent struggles against the conference, the outlook likely won’t be too bright.
This isn’t dampening Jones’ feelings about the season, however. “They’re not gonna back down to anyone,” according to Jones.
Bement echoed Jones’ sentiments adding that the “sky’s the limit. I think it’s in our hands.”
The team first took to the field Aug. 19 against the University of Chicago for an exhibition matchup. Sophomore Dane Bergstrom was able to find the back of the net early on, scoring in the fourth minute of play. The Maroons would even the tally at 1-1 in the 21st minute and go on to take the lead six minutes later.
The score remained 2-1 throughout the second half. In the final seconds of play, Bement was taken down in the penalty box and awarded a penalty shot. Unfortunately, the shot went wide of the net and time expired shortly after to end the Ramblers’ chance of a rally.
Loyola plays one more exhibition game against Xavier University in Fort Wayne, Ind. on Aug. 23. The season opens Aug. 30 in Ann Arbor, Mich. as the Ramblers travel to take on the University of Michigan Wolverines.