FRANK CUSHMAN | SPORTS EDITOR
The St. Norbert Men’s soccer team has embarked on one of its most successful campaigns this season. After winning the regular season conference title last year but narrowly missing the NCAA tournament, the knights once again roared to the top of the conference in 2016. This time they faced a tougher regular season test finishing third. Not the result the knights were looking for but it propelled them to the all important conference tournament.
The field for the tournament is set by the regular season records. The top 4 teams in regular season conference play advance to the tournament with the number 1 seed hosting. The top of table was, in order from 1st to 4th, Lake Forest College, Knox College, St. Norbert College and Grinnell. The first weekend of November saw the big dogs in conference descend on Lake Forest.
The first matchup pitted no. 1 seed and 10th ranked regionally, Lake Forest vs. no. 4 seed Grinnell. Grinnell found a rather fluke first half goal but with intelligent play and stout defending made it stand up, upset the Foresters 1-0. This result was a big motivator for the Green Knights, who could see that elusive NCAA tournament bid up for the taking.
The second game of the day saw no. 2 seeded Knox face St. Norbert the no. 3 seed and 7th ranked regionally. This high regional ranking had a lot to do with two huge wins over non-conference teams, Loras and Whitewater. Both ranked in the top 25 in the country.
The game started quickly for the Green Knights when, in the 12th minute, senior captain Tyler Kassube notched his 10th of the year with a wonderful curling free kick that beat the keeper to his left. 14 minutes later a Kassube corner kick found a crashing Kieran Ruane who nodded home the Knights second, increasing the advantage to 2-0. The lead appeared to be commanding, especially with the confidence with which the Knights were launching attacks but this was just the start of a wild half. In the 35th minute a foul in St. Norbert’s box left Knox’s Erick Karkut standing over the penalty kick. He just managed to put it past the stretching hand of Knights goalkeeper Josh Koleske to pull the Prairie Fire back into the game at 2-1. Just 2 minutes later the Knights would respond, finding the back of the net again. Griffin Hoerchner found Kevin “Old Man” Marx on the back post who struck a wonderful one time shot past Knox’s keeper Justin Dunn. But just before half Knox broke through again making the score 3-2 going into the break. Knox put the pressure on in the second half but the defense and Koleske (making 9 important saves) held strong holding the score for the rest of the game.
The championship was set, no. 3 vs no. 4, St. Norbert vs. Grinnell. Once again,
the Knights got off to a flying start. Ben Prange, recently named MWC Newcomer of the year, scored a skillful unassisted goal in the 5th minute. This was his team leading 12th of the season. He turned a defender in the box and coolly passed the ball past the keeper making it 1-0. It turned into a battle after this, Grinnell quickening the pace of play, forcing St. Norbert into a long ball game. For those not familiar with soccer, this is the opposite of possession play. Possession soccer is often referred to as “the beautiful game”, because it is generally considered the best kind of soccer to watch. This style is where the teams play multiple passes in a row, working the ball around the field, patiently waiting for an opening. The opposite style is where the game becomes a lot of clearances back and forth and many of 50/50 balls in the midfield. It suits a team with less skilled players because it turns the game into what I like to describe as something like hockey. It requires less technical skill and relies on primarily on physicality. When a lesser team can draw a better team into this game it usually puts the game up for grabs. This is exactly what happened in the Championship game.
The Knights took their 1-0 lead to halftime but it was not comfortable. Grinnell was threatening down the flanks with good wing play and clogging the middle with a tough and experienced midfield. This paid off when in the 54th minute Francisco Sanchez-Conde found himself at the end of a hard and low cross across the box. He blasted the ball home to tie the game. The score would remain 1-1 through regulation.
The overtime in college soccer consists of two 10 minute periods with a golden goal rule, meaning the first team to score wins. Just a minute into the first period Grinnell appeared to win the game with a play almost identical to their goal in the second half. The offside flag saved the Knights and the goal was wiped away. The Knights wasted no time in taking advantage of their fortune when Ben Prange was dragged down in the box leaving Kassube looming over a penalty kick to take the title and punch the Green Knights ticket to the tourney. He blasted the ball past Grinnell’s Major May and the sent the boys in green dancing.
The selection show was Monday the 5th and the men’s team piled into a busy Dale’s to watch the announcement. The announcement came at 12:06 CST, the Green Knights would be traveling to St. Thomas in St. Paul to face Luther College in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Norse came in with a similar team to the Knights. Finishing 3rd in the tough Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference behind Loras and Dubuque, they made a run in the conference tournament to take home the championship and grab a tournament bid.
The Green Knights fell to Luther 2-1 in an overtime thriller at South Field on St. Thomas’s campus Saturday. Giving up a quick goal within the first 10 minute the Knights, through stout defending and calculated counter attacks pulled even halfway through the second half. Tyler Kassube knocked home the penalty kick for his 12th goal of the season. The game went to overtime 1-1 and stayed a stalemate until late in the second 10 minute period. Off a deflected cross Luther found back of the net. They will face St. Thomas in the round of 32 on Sunday, results not in by press time.
This was a great season for the men’s soccer team. They proved themselves with the best in the country, playing 4 top 25 teams and going 2-2 in those matches. They did not concede a goal at their home field Schneider stadium throughout all of conference play. Finally, they won the conference tournament and made it to the big dance for the first time since 2006. This campaign marks a continued upward direction for the program. Having two of the program’s most successful seasons back to back years has put St. Norbert soccer on the map.
A special thanks is due to the seniors. Sam Lamers, Kevin Marx, Tyler Kassube, Joe Fabich, Sam Lisheron and Cayden Lasecki who have left a lasting mark on the men’s soccer program and the school. Combined, they amassed 5 all conference selections. They won the 2015 regular season MWC championship and 2016 MWC tournament. To cap off a great career, they lead the team to its first NCAA tournament appearance in 10 years.
The knights look forward to a bright future. The junior class has been instrumental in their success over the past two seasons and looks well prepared to lead as seniors. In addition solid minutes from the underclassmen bode well for the coming years. There were 4 freshmen who regularly started, Including forward Ben Prange and goalkeeper Josh Koleske. Prange not only earned first team all conference honors but also won the MWC Newcomer of the Year award. Koleske a lengthy 6’1” shot stopper, earned multiple player of week awards and was recognized by the conference being selected to second team all conference honors.
Congratulations to the boys on a fantastic season and congratulations to the seniors on a great career.