After starting the season 1-3, the Loyola men’s soccer team recovered to seal its second Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) regular-season title. Now, head coach Neil Jones said the team is ready to move forward into the spring offseason.
The Ramblers finished the season with a 10-7-2 record and fell to University of Central Arkansas in the MVC Tournament championship Nov. 11. This was the first time Loyola made it to the championship game since joining the MVC in 2013; junior midfielder Aidan Megally scored the only Rambler goal in the 2-1 loss.
“The championship was a tough one,” Jones said. “But it was good for us to get the experience … so when we’re hopefully there again next year … it will not be new territory for us.”
Since they finished in the top two of the conference during the regular season, the Ramblers didn’t have to play a quarterfinal game and instead went straight to the semifinal game against Drake University Nov. 9. Jones said although the game was a battle, he’s proud of how they fought through it and got the goal for a 1-0 win.
After a rough start to the season, including a 6-1 loss to Oakland University at home and losing their three exhibition games, the Ramblers began to bounce back with a 2-0 victory over Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Sept. 15. Jones said he credits the team’s recovery to the players’ and staff’s determination to dig themselves out of that hole, their hard work and the trust they had in each other.
“We just kept fighting and scrapping,” Jones said. “Being professional about our performances, being professional about our preparation, both as players and … as coaches.”
The Ramblers went on to put up a 2-1 overtime win Sept. 29 at Bradley University, which was Loyola’s first win at Bradley since 1995. Jones said this was a huge moment for the team and it was one of his favorite points in the season.
First-year midfielder Billy Hency echoed this excitement about that game, saying it was his favorite moment this season.
“When we were at Bradley and I scored in overtime, that was a great feeling,” Hency said.
The team went on to have a five-game win streak at home from Oct. 9-23, which Megally said was one of his favorite times this year.
“The streak that we went on … that part of the season was really nice,” Megally said. “I just felt like the whole team was clicking.”
Jones said the team’s overall work rate and attitude was at a good point during that period, which he said led to better defensive performances. He added the little moments on offense and defense were what helped them win those tight games.
“The guys were just together as a team at that point,” Jones said. “They were focused on achieving results and they had each others’ back.”
As far as improvements for next season, both Hency and Jones said the team needs to focus on improving its ability to score. Jones also emphasized the team’s need to work on coming back from games that seem out of reach, such as in the championship where there was a good chance to tie the game in the last five minutes, he said.
This season, the Ramblers did have a stronger ability to hold leads, with only a few losses where Loyola started off ahead.
Jones said his standout players this year included seniors such as midfielders Fabian Lifka and redshirt Grant Stoneman. Lifka finished the season with two goals and three assists, and Stoneman was named MVC Defensive Player of the Year.
“[We’re] just sad to see the seniors go,” Jones said. “Just appreciate all their efforts and wish all those seven guys the best in their careers after Loyola.”
Jones also praised junior goalkeeper Josh Lagudah, who was named the 2018 MVC Goalkeeper of the Year and finished with a 0.780 save percentage in his first season at Loyola.
Megally said the team was able to hold leads it might’ve let slip in the previous year and more first-years stepped up and contributed to the team which, he said, will help the team have a solid foundation of players for next year.
From start to finish, the team was able to grow this year to compete with and win against the good teams, Megally said. He added as a group, the Ramblers can be proud of their season.
“I think from where we started to where we ended, no one would’ve guessed that we would’ve had a 10-win season,” Megally said.
Lagudah, Megally and Hency are three of 22 players set to return to the roster next season.