Cold morning practices and grueling gym sessions defined many Swarthmore men’s soccer players’ spring semester in 2018. As unappetizing as it sounds, these workouts were not mandatory or organized by the coaches. Every session was designed and run by players, as NCAA Division III rules mandate that no official practices can be held in the offseason. Players rolled out of bed at 6:30 a.m. on Mondays in order to be ready to go at 7:00 a.m., all on their own accord. Technically, these sessions were “voluntary.” However, to many players, there was nothing more important than being on the field before the sun rose, ready to improve.
This type of an offseason, where there were almost no days off, was new to the soccer program according to some veteran players.
“In the past, we haven’t really done much in the offseason. Players would workout on their own, but we didn’t meet often as a team to play and lift. This year, we looked to change that and the results are showing now,” said Nick Ambiel ՚19, a captain on the team. After the 2017 season ended in disappointment for the Garnet, a fierce desire started burning in the team. With a mix of anger, belief, and resolve driving them, the Swarthmore men’s soccer team put together their most active offseason ever, all in the hopes of delivering a successful season in the fall semester.
When the spring semester ended and players went off to their respective summer destinations, there was an expectation that everyone would continue to work hard on their own. Each member coming to the two-week preseason in good shape was going to be imperative for the team’s success. Finally, after months of preparation, the fall season has arrived for the Garnet, and there is a feeling surrounding the team that this could be the year they put together a run into the playoffs.
“I think that there is a different kind of a belief in us. From starters to people that don’t play at all, everybody is invested and thinks that we could go all the way this year. Everyone is on board, and it hasn’t always been like that in the past,” says Zach Viscusi ’20, a three-year varsity soccer member.
This year, the team is comprised of 29 players: six freshman, eleven sophomores, seven juniors, and five seniors. Ambiel’s co-captain is midfielder Joey Bradley ’20, while Jason Meuth ’21 and Ben Lau ’22 were voted leaders of the sophomore and freshman classes, respectively. This year, the team has new members from all over: Ethan Witkowski ’20 is a junior transfer from Monroe Community College, Ian Withy-Berry ’22 has come all the way from Hawaii, and Harry Nevins ’22 journeyed from London, England to join the squad.
The team has begun the season 3-2, with wins against Methodist (SC), Widener (PA), and Alvernia (PA). This Saturday, they begin Centennial Conference play away from home at Dickinson. Then, next Saturday, the team plays their first conference game at home against Muhlenberg at 7:00 p.m. Other conference games in the coming months include Ursinus, defending conference champions No. 12 Franklin and Marshall, nationally ranked No. 20 Johns Hopkins, McDaniel, Washington College, Gettysburg, and Haverford. The top five teams in the conference based on points (three points for a win, one point for a draw, no points for a loss) make the Centennial Conference playoffs. The fourth and fifth seeded teams play one another for a spot in the semi-finals against the first seed, while the second and third seeded teams play each other in the other semi-final. The playoffs are single elimination, winner takes all. Last year, Franklin and Marshall defeated Dickinson in the final, while Johns Hopkins, Gettysburg, and Haverford all fell short in the tournament.
This year, every team is a threat.
“Every game is tough. Every game is decided by really thin margins. Last year we were on the wrong side of a lot of those results, but this year we know we have a lot more quality and are looking flip the script,” says Oliver Steinglass ՚20, starting goalkeeper on the team. In last year’s regular season, Swarthmore fell to Washington College and Franklin and Marshall 1-0, while tying McDaniel and Johns Hopkins 0-0. A couple goals here and there would have booked Swarthmore a trip to the playoffs in one of the toughest Division III conferences in the country.
However, despite the competition, Swarthmore feels more than up for the challenge. The team returns last year’s leading goal scorer Woojin Shin ’21 and Swarthmore “savage” player of the year Trevor Homstad ’20. The “savage” player of the year is not a replacement for the Most Valuable Player award, but it does typically go to one of the top players on the team. The award is given to the team member that consistently displayed hard work, toughness, and talent throughout the season. Although Shin and Homstad are poised to have big roles this season, every player is expected to contribute. Besides being a technically, physically, and tactically better team, the Garnet have made efforts to keep every player involved on game day, even those who do not see much playing time. Anybody who has attended a Garnet men’s soccer game this year will have seen every player on the bench standing up, shouting encouragement to players on the field.
“Personally, I’ve taken a little bit of a bigger role on getting the bench more involved this year. I think there’s a lot of respect within the team. Everyone wants everyone to succeed, and when that’s the case, it’s easy to root for one another,” says Viscusi.
In the preseason men’s soccer poll conducted by the Centennial Conference, Swarthmore was ranked sixth in the Conference along with Muhlenberg. However, the players are not worried about that. The Centennial Conference has underrated Swarthmore athletic teams before: Swarthmore’s baseball team, conference champions and Division III World Series participants, were ranked fifth last year in the preseason poll.
Rankings aside, the only thing the team is concerned about is winning, and they don’t care who scores the goals to make it happen. Currently, five different Garnet soccer players have scored; Yuheng Wang ’19 leads with two while Witkowski, Viscusi, Shin, and Meuth each have one. The contributions from multiple goal scorers, a strong back line and goalie, lively substitutes, and enthusiastic reserves has Swarthmore geared up for its best season in years. In regard to winning, captain Joey Bradley said it best:
“It’s not an option, it’s an expectation.”