On a cold November night in South Bend, Indiana, snowflakes fell slowly over Notre Dame’s campus as the Loyola men’s soccer team’s best season in program history came to an end.
Last season, the Ramblers saw 14 wins, a single-season record, and the team’s first win in the NCAA tournament against cross-town rival University of Illinois at Chicago. Loyola was ranked as high as No. 11 nationally before its season came to an end with a 1-0 loss to Notre Dame in the second round on Nov. 20.
Following their loss to Notre Dame, the team immediately started looking ahead to the 2017 season. In December, head coach Neil Jones told The PHOENIX his team was “devastated … but they’re excited about the future.”
Starting this season with high expectations, the team’s goal is to move farther in the NCAA tournament than it did last year. However, according to Jones it will have to do that with a target on its back, as a result of being voted first in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) preseason poll on Aug. 17, after being selected third in 2016.
“Absolutely [we feel a target]. We had a great year last year, but I think our program is in a very strong place, and teams know that and they’re going to be coming after us,” Jones said.
Even with high expectations, the team won’t be able to jump right into the success it had last year. The Ramblers lost nine letterwinners and four starters to graduation or transfer, including 2016 MVC goalkeeper of the year Andrew Chekadanov and first-team All-MVC winners Ryan Howe and Brody Kraussel, but will have 12 letterwinners and seven starters returning.
“That’s college athletics, every team in the country is losing players in different areas,” Jones said. “It’s about finding new combinations and players to fill those roles.”
Jones and his coaching staff took the heaviest hit in the back line. Last season, the Ramblers were tied with Syracuse University for No. 5 in the country in goals against average (GAA). But only one member of the back line will be back this year: redshirt junior Grant Stoneman.
Stoneman won preseason second team All-American honors from College Soccer News. Stoneman said losing players hurts the team but the replacements watched the players all last year and understand what they need to do in order to continue Loyola’s defensive dominance.
“The older guys in the back were the leaders, so it has created a new dynamic,” Stoneman said. “I’m just trying to get the guys in the back who are new acclimated to what we do and how we defend.”
Both Jones and Stoneman understand that the identity of their team comes from how well they defend. Both said the team spent the entire spring season and summer training camp trying new combinations of players on the back line in order to rebuild a squad that held a shutout streak of more than six games last season.
“The staple for our team is to defend. The final four teams in the NCAA tournament [last year] were the top four teams in GAA and we were the fifth team,” Stoneman said. “So if we can keep that up and keep working hard defending and put in a few goals, I think our season can be really, really good.”
Last season was the Ramblers’ first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011. According to Stoneman, the trip to South Bend was a learning experience that can push the team farther than the second round.
“We saw what it takes, because [Notre Dame] is a big program. Basically we saw what we need to do,” Stoneman said. “It was good for us because a lot of the guys that played returned, so everyone kind of knows what it takes to beat a team like that. It was good for us to get experience and show how close we really are.”
The Ramblers are scheduled to take their NCAA tournament experience to an early conference matchup against Valparaiso University Sep. 1 at 7 p.m. at Loyola Soccer Park at Hoyne and Devon Avenues.