The Loyola men’s soccer team’s historic season came to an end on Nov. 20 in a 1-0 loss to Notre Dame University. Instead of dwelling on the past, the Ramblers are looking to the future.
Loyola’s 2016 campaign was one that saw a program record of 14 wins, a regular season conference title and the first NCAA national tournament win in Loyola men’s soccer history. But the loss to Notre Dame brought the storybook season to a close. Head coach Neil Jones said the tournament loss has left a sour taste in his players’ mouths.
“They’re devastated,” said Jones. “We haven’t achieved our ultimate goal: a national championship. They’re sad to see the seniors go, but they’re excited about the future.”
The brutal reality of college sports is that no team will ever be the same in consecutive years; players come and go with graduation. Five seniors from Loyola laced up for the last time against the Fighting Irish, three of them starters on the defensive backline. But, rebuilding the defense is likely the only major challenge ahead for Jones, as the remaining eight starters are expected to return for the 2017 campaign.
One such starter is Kyle Thomson. A junior midfielder, Thomson earned a spot on the All- Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) second team. He said there are holes to fill on the team, with key players such as Ryan Howe, Kirill Likhovid and Kevin Engesser saying their goodbyes.
“We’ve lost our entire backline before,” said Thomson. “Losing those players … is something we can benefit from because we have new players who watched them play all year … and can fill the void with the experience they had.”
Replacing players is no easy task. Coaches and recruiters must convince potential players that their school is the best choice, while other schools are giving those players the same spiel. Loyola was consistently ranked among the top 25 teams by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. One would think such an honor would make Jones’ time recruiting players easier, but he said that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“We have good recruits coming in,” Jones said. “We want to get guys with high soccer IQs … For recruiting, it’s actually a lot harder [when your team does well] … When your team isn’t very good, your inbox is empty. When your team is very good, your inbox is full. I’m sure coach [Mike Krzyzewski’s] inbox at Duke [University] is quite full.”
As a rising senior, Thomson will assume a new role on the team. Entering his final year, he said he knows how important his leadership will be, but he’s confident the team will fare just fine without the graduating seniors. Thomson recalled the team’s preseason trip to Peru, where he said the team grew closer, and said he expects that bond to last for years to come.
“I don’t think [my role] changes too much, actually,” Thomson said. “I’ve had great leaders this season in the seniors, and I’ve learned from them. For myself, … I want to show the underclassmen how to be a Loyola soccer player. [Jones] knows the reason we were successful this year was because of the spring the year before … The trip to Peru really bonded us. In years past we were a little segregated by class, … but that trip … showed us how important it is to be connected — from the first freshman to the oldest senior.”
Every story has a beginning and an end, and the story of the 2016-17 Ramblers, the best team in program history, is over. Jones is looking ahead. He said he took no time dwelling on the past, despite the great things his squad achieved this season.
“[I took] about 30 minutes [off]. It was a historic season — a lot of great memories, for sure,” Jones said. “No two teams are the same. That’s the crazy thing about college sports … That’s how we operate … We’ll be back training five days a week in January, when the next semester starts … I’d like to think [they’re still hungry for success]. I am.”