The Loyola men’s soccer team has a strong identity built on defense. A team can’t beat you if they don’t score. That identity was apparent last year when the team finished the season as one of the stingiest defenses in all of Division I NCAA soccer. Now, with a new back line, the team is hoping to maintain this identity.
Last season, the Ramblers were tied with Syracuse University for fifth in the nation in goals against average (GAA) and for a stretch lasting more than six games, the team didn’t allow a goal for 558 minutes.
But the nature of college sports means players are constantly leaving through graduation. The Ramblers lost two key members of the back line from last season, 2016 Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) goalkeeper of the year Andrew Chekadanov and first team All-MVC award winner Ryan Howe.
Only two members of last year’s defense are back for the Ramblers’ 2017 campaign, redshirt junior Grant Stoneman and sophomore Marius Kullmann. Stoneman became the second All-American in Loyola soccer history after earning second team National Soccer Coaches Association of America honors following the 2016 season. Kullmann earned honorable mention All-MVC and a spot on the MVC All-Freshman team.
Joining Stoneman and Kullmann in the back are first-year goalkeeper Aidan Aylward and redshirt freshmen Addison Parrish and Lucas Bartlett.
Though they didn’t play last season, Bartlett and Parrish gained experience by watching how the defense worked, according to Bartlett.
“Watching the older guys with Ryan Howe … [and] watching [Stoneman], it was perfect for me to just sit back and watch and learn a lot,” Bartlett, an Overland Park, Kansas native, said. “I think I grew a lot from that, which I think has helped me and helped us start out the season pretty well.”
Head coach Neil Jones agreed with Bartlett, saying the experience Bartlett and Parrish gained from watching games, training and film and playing games in the shortened spring season has taught them how the team wants to play in the back.
The Ramblers’ defensive game plan sounds simple: Don’t allow goals. However, this is much harder to execute. Throughout the first three games of the season, the back line has allowed four goals, one in the win against Xavier University to open the season, two against conference newcomer Valparaiso University and another in a 3-1 victory over La Salle University.
“If we don’t concede a goal we aren’t going to lose a game,” Bartlett said. “We want to be top four in the country in giving up goals. We don’t want to give up anything and let our attack do what they do.”
Bartlett, Kullmann and Stoneman have all echoed the same thought this season. The top four teams in the country in GAA — University of North Carolina, Wake Forest University, University of Denver and Stanford University — were the last four teams left in the NCAA tournament. The Ramblers believe that if they can break into the top four best defenses in college soccer, they will have a chance to make an extended postseason run, Kullmann said.
With one first year, two redshirt freshmen and a redshirt junior, the youth on the defensive end will provide some challenges, according to Kullmann, but it also gives an opportunity for growth as the season progresses and for future seasons.
“We just need to grow as a unit on the back line, game by game,” Kullmann said. “We are a little bit inexperienced, but we grow with every practice, we grow with every game and it’s only going up from here.”
The young back line will be tested as it’s scheduled to play the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Sept. 8 at 2 p.m. in DeKalb at the Northern Illinois University Invitational.