Gonzaga men’s soccer fell just short in the team's first competitive game (an exhibition against Seattle University) since the fall of 2019. Almost a year ago, COVID-19 forced all sports to immediately postpone their seasons until further notice. Fortunately, they got to play through their conference. After a slow start during preseason games, GU ended up placing third in the West Coast Conference, the highest the program has finished in over 10 years.
“I think we just started to create an actual team identity and playing style,” said senior midfielder, Joe Corner. “I think guys were starting to feel more defined in what their role was and how to play certain positions on the field, and I think that’s only continued in the time that we haven’t been playing games over the last year or so.”
When the team returned this fall after an unusually uneventful 2020 spring season, the guys were only allowed to play in small groups because of COVID-19 restrictions. They took that opportunity to focus on footwork, tight possessions and fitness.
As some restrictions were lifted, they were able to add more and more players to the field. Eventually, they could scrimmage each other and focus on broader techniques. They have especially been working on their defensive shape and offensive plays that can get them into and through the final third of the field to take a shot on goal.
“I think we have good reason to feel confident,” said Head Coach Paul Meehan. “I feel like every day we get a little bit better and I’m looking forward to seeing where we are in late April.”
As the spring season comes into view, the guys cannot wait to get back on the field again and play with more of the competitive nature that has been suppressed for so many months. However, Luger Field is still out of operation because of the winter weather. Therefore, most of their nonconference games will require them to travel and play on their opponents’ fields. Not only that, but they have been forced to practice on Mulligan Field, which is turf rather than grass.
Now that their championship season has started, they have been training six days a week as opposed to the five days a week they were training in the fall. After playing an exhibition game against Seattle University just a couple weeks ago, they were able to recognize what areas they were successful in, as well as what they still need to work on before the onset of conference games.
Compared to last year’s team, this one seems entirely different. Along with crucial returners like Corner, Theo O’Malley, Demitrius Kigeya, Frankie Ljucovic, Cole Rovegno and Johnny Hansen, the program has welcomed 10 new players, the majority of whom have the potential to be starters as the season begins.
“I think it is a testament to the coaching staff bringing in quality guys that are going to make immediate impact,” Corner said.
Finn Simmersbach, Sebastian Karlholm, Angelo Calfo, Wylie Trujillo, Gideon Davis, Richard Ruiz, Devin Slingsby, Milo Libby, Logan Dorsey and Andres Labate have all been welcomed not only because of their skill but because of their dedication and character as well.
They fit in with the team because they consistently put all of their effort into practices. With that, their transition into the program was as smooth as it could have been in the middle of a global pandemic, and there was no tension amongst the players.
“Part of our culture is to be hardworking, committed to getting better on a daily basis and just being the best teammate and friend that you can be within the program,” Meehan said. “The character part is crucial for us and we will never compromise talent over character. I think our guys are proof that you don’t have to, that you can have good people who are really good players at the same time.”
There are several sports teams that have been robbed of their competitive seasons because of COVID-19, but for men’s soccer in particular, competing in the spring rather than the fall gave them extra time to bond and figure out how to play together before conference games begin. This was crucial considering over half of their team is comprised of newcomers.
“We’ve grown tight-knit pretty quickly over the last four or five months,” Corner said. “I think that’s going to be our strength going forward; we have a lot of trust in each other and a lot of trust in what we’re trying to do in the system we’re trying to play, so I think that’s going to be what we always turn to.”
GU men’s soccer always aims high with the goal of winning the WCC. In past seasons, Corner admits it may have been an unrealistic goal, but the team and the program has grown so much over the past few years that it is now more achievable.
“I think we have the players and the quality and the depth to be able to do that,” Corner said. “Obviously, it is on us to execute, but I think we have all of the tools available to be able to do something like that; we just have to go out and do it.”
GU is scheduled to play a non-conference game on Sunday against the University of Washington. Conference games begin on Feb. 28 with their first game against the University of San Francisco.