A Successful Return for Swarthmore Soccer

The Centennial Conference soccer postseason has officially ended, and Swarthmore’s men and women’s soccer teams, who returned to action after a year off due to the pandemic, both successfully made the Centennial Conference playoffs. The men and women lost in their first game of the postseason, with the third seeded women’s team (9-5-2) falling 0-3 away at second seeded and nationally ranked #7 McDaniel College (17-1-1) in the semifinal, and the fourth seeded men’s team (11-4-2) losing 2-1 at home against Gettysburg College (13-5-2) in the play-in game. The McDaniel women went on to win the Centennial Conference in a penalty shootout against Franklin & Marshall (13-3-3), while the Gettysburg men fell 2-0 in the conference final against Washington College (13-4-1).

Swarthmore’s women’s team conceded the first goal just over two minutes into the game, after a long set-piece into the box found first year Isabela Soares open in the penalty area. Swarthmore struggled to find an offensive rhythm throughout the game, and McDaniel came out with a deserved win. A difficult postseason loss to the eventual conference champions, however, should not distract from what has been an impressive season from the women’s team, particularly when taking into account the fact they started the season 2-3-2. A subsequent seven game winning streak for the Garnet, highlighted by two wins in OT, meant that the team successfully booked their place in the Conference playoffs.

The seven-game win streak was evidence of the defensive turnaround that the team showed throughout the season. After conceding eight goals across their first seven games, including a very close 2-1 loss at home against McDaniel, the Garnet only conceded three goals during their entire win streak and no more than one in any single game. Crucial to this defensive run was the play and leadership of starting center back Alice Onyango-Opiyo ’23. 

When discussing the team’s year, she said, “It was difficult transitioning out of a whole year without a season and resetting the team dynamic with so many changes, but our captains did a great job of reorganizing us as a team.” 

Given the marked difference in results and performance over the Garnet’s first seven games compared to their next seven, it seems evident that they needed time to readjust after a year long hiatus and settle into the new team dynamic, particularly when it came to the defense. 

Onyango-Opiyo spoke to the challenges of organizing the back line. “It requires all four people to be in constant communication — especially when we don’t have the ball — which means everyone has to stay mentally alert at all times,” she said. 

She also discussed the way in which the cohesion and communication within the back line directly impacts the rest of the team. 

“Since defenders can see the whole field, there’s a level of responsibility to relay what we see to the rest of the team even when we are not involved in the play,” said Onyango-Opiyo. 

Onyango-Opiyo’s observation can help explain how the team’s significant defensive improvement was also accompanied by more production on the goal scoring end, as the Garnet scored thirteen goals over their winning stretch compared to just seven across their first seven games.

Veronica Gibbons ’23 is another crucial piece in the puzzle for the Garnet. As the starting center defensive midfielder, she is one of the first walls of defense in every game Swarthmore plays, and also serves as a conduit between the defense and the offense when the team wins possession. Her ball-winning abilities proved essential throughout the win streak and the season as a whole. She deservedly took home a Centennial Conference Defensive Player of the Week for her efforts. Gibbons is second on the team in minutes played this season, behind only Onyango-Opiyo, and started every game this year, after only starting two in her freshman year. 

Gibbons’s confidence on the field contributes heavily to her defensive success. “I enjoy winning balls in the air and I expect myself to win most, if not all of them,” said Gibbons. She continued, “I’ve also always tried to be the hardest working person on the field, so I make sure I do all the small things that I know I can control.” 

However, it is not just Gibbons’s  defensive prowess that makes the midfielder stand out on the pitch. Her three goals this year had her tied for second most on the team, and her four total goal contributions had her in a four-way tie for the team lead. 

Gibbons describes trying to balance her defensive responsibilities with her attacking impulses. “I always want to go forward, but I know when I shouldn’t … I try my best to accomplish that job while taking a little bit of creative liberty here and there,” she said.

With the added continuity of a full offseason program and more time together as a team over the coming months, the women’s team will be expecting big things next year. 

“Our loss in the conference tournament really built a fire underneath us to work hard in the offseason,” said Gibbons. 

Onyango-Opiyo hopes to see defensive growth, both individually as a leader and collectively with regards to close games. “My hope is that as a team going forward that we continue to do a good job managing tight games with close scores until the very end of the game — and hopefully there will be a lot less overtime matches next season,” said Onyango-Opiyo.

On the men’s side, the Garnet struck first in the game against Gettysburg College. A pinpoint header from Bless Tumushabe ’23 in the 74th minute left Gettysburg’s goalkeeper Kevin Muhic frozen, breaking the deadlock. Gettysburg, however, retaliated quickly with a long throw into the box, leading to the equalizer just three minutes later. With the score tied 1-1 after 90 minutes, the Bullets broke the tie with an OT golden goal game winner by Jack Carroll. 

Swarthmore’s season did not end with this loss, however, as they received an at-large bid for the NCAA Division III tournament. They will travel to Tufts University’s campus in Medford, MA. this Saturday to take on the Stevens Institute of Technology (12-6-2). If the Garnet are able to defeat Stevens, they will face the winner of Tufts (13-1-2) and New England College (9-6-2) the following day. Tufts are currently ranked #7 in the country and are the two-time defending national champions.

If a matchup between Swarthmore and Tufts comes to pass, fans will be treated to a matchup of brothers, as the Garnet’s starting attacking midfielder Woojin Shin ’22 has a younger brother, Woovin Shin, on the Tufts roster. When discussing the possibility of competing against his brother in a national tournament, Woojin Shin emphasized the importance of focusing on the Stevens game first. The last time the Garnet was in the tournament they almost had the opportunity to take on Tufts in the Elite Eight but Swarthmore fell to Connecticut College in the preceding round. Even with Stevens firmly in the midfielder’s headlights, he acknowledged the significance that playing against his brother would hold.

“My brother and I had many great memories growing up and playing together, but I actually never had the chance to compete and play against him in a real game,” said Shin. He continued, “So, it means even more to me, since this could very possibly be my last game for Swarthmore College. This potential moment would be the pinnacle of my soccer career.”

Alongside Shin and fellow central midfielder Charley Ward ’22, transfer upperclassman Leor Hecht ’23 will be patrolling the field on Saturday as the Garnet’s central defensive midfielder. Originally a part of Lafayette College’s men’s soccer team, Hecht has flourished in his first year at Swarthmore College. He tallied fourteen starts for the Garnet this season, and is tied with three other players for the team lead in assists, with three. 

Reflecting on his time at Lafayette and Swarthmore, Hecht said, “While I learned a lot in my time at Lafayette, I’ve had an amazing opportunity to express myself on and off the field, an opportunity I owe entirely to this team. I have loved football my entire life, and being here has made me feel like football is loving me back.”

One key player who unfortunately will not be taking the field on Saturday is team captain Joe Barile ’22, who is out for the year with a torn ACL. Awarded a Centennial Conference All-Conference Honorable Mention in 2019, Barile was well on his way to another award-filled season before the knee injury cut his campaign short in a conference game against Muhlenburg College (7-7-2). Despite finishing the year with only nine appearances, Barile was tied for second-most goals on the team with four and finished with the most game winners on the team with three. Hecht was insightful when discussing how the team has adapted to the loss of Barile, while emphasizing the ways in which the captain has impacted the team even from the bench. 

“It goes without saying that Joe represents everything positive that is Swarthmore men’s soccer. Beyond him being our captain, he has been able to lead and inspire the team even when unable to contribute on the field.” 

Hecht continued, “The sign of a great team is that we have the ability to adapt and distribute the responsibility of scoring across the team, which is exactly what we did. In addition to spreading the responsibility of scoring, we’ve upped our defensive rigor and taken more pride in not conceding goals.”

The Swarthmore College Garnet will take the field against the Stevens Institute of Technology this Saturday at 3:30 p.m.

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