Loyola’s men’s soccer team saw its season end in a 2-1 defeat in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) championship to regular season conference champion University of Central Arkansas Nov. 11, leaving the Ramblers one win short of the NCAA Tournament.
Despite a slow start to non-conference play against some tough teams, including University of Michigan and Oakland University, head coach Neil Jones rallied his team to a second place finish in the MVC regular season standings. This was highlighted by an unbeaten run throughout October which included big wins over Xavier University and Northern Illinois University.
Despite these successes, the men’s soccer team will look back at this year and think it could have gone further. Throughout the year, Jones and the team’s captains, redshirt senior defender Grant Stoneman and senior midfielder Fabian Lifka, said the goal was always to make the NCAA Tournament and see how far a run this team could make.
Built on a strong defense and excellent goalkeeper play, the Ramblers boasted the best defensive record in the MVC this season by allowing only two goals throughout conference play.
This impressive showing on defense was aided by breakout junior goalkeeper Josh Lagudah, an international transfer from Canberra, Australia. Lagudah proved to be a force for the Ramblers between the sticks by going 498 minutes without conceding a goal and breaking the minutes scoreless streak at Loyola.
This strength at the back line and in goal was on display this weekend in the MVC semi-finals as the team kept Drake University out of the net for all 109 minutes of the match before junior midfielder Aidan Megally grabbed the extra-time winner.
The victory propelled the team to the MVC Tournament championship game against last year’s tournament winner, Central Arkansas. The Bears completed an impressive season which included a 1-0 conference victory over the Ramblers to lock up the No. 1 seed in the MVC Tournament.
Despite their regular-season loss, the Ramblers seemed up to the challenge Central Arkansas presented as they traveled to Evansville.
Senior forward Alec Lasinski told The Phoenix they needed to internalize the earlier matchup to overcome the Bears’ strengths.
The match began as poorly as the Ramblers could have imagined. Central Arkansas forward Niklas Brodacki was brought down by Lagudah in what was a soft penalty call and Brodacki made no mistake as he converted from the spot.
The Bears doubled their advantage in the 52nd minute when midfielder Daltyn Knutson headed in his own rebound, leaving the Ramblers in a 2-0 hole. This illustrated the problems which have plagued the team all year — the Ramblers only recovered from a deficit once this season.
These struggles to come back were vindicated as, despite a 79th minute penalty kick from Megally, the Ramblers fell and were left empty-handed.
This now leaves the Ramblers with the question of “What could have been?” as they reflect on this season. What could the Ramblers have changed to defeat such a solid Central Arkansas team and make their way to the NCAA Tournament, and what can they take away from this defeat heading into next year?
It’s certain that it won’t be easy to return to the NCAA Tournament, let alone, the MVC championship. The losses of Lifka and All-American defender Stoneman will be hard to replace for Jones as he looks to pick up the pieces and get back to his first NCAA Tournament since 2016.