The SVSU men’s soccer team has propelled itself to a perennial power in the Midwest Region of Division II soccer. To kick off the 2017 campaign, the No. 18 team in the country will travel to another regional power, Quincy University, on Friday, Sept. 1, to begin their quest for back-to-back GLIAC championships.
Several players spent the offseason training and playing with teams like Detroit City Football Club (DCFC) and the Michigan Stars, while junior Omar Sinclair also spent time playing in England and sophomore Pablo Ortiz played for a team in Canada. Like last year’s team, the group came back to campus early this summer to train and condition before official practices began.
“It’s part of our culture now,” head coach Andy Wagstaff said. “We can’t make it mandatory, but the lads came back around mid-July and trained with (head strength and conditioning coach) Chris Winter, who’s the best in the business in my mind. By the time we got them on Aug. 14, they were already fit and ready to go.”
The Cardinals did lose several key seniors from last year’s side including TJ Stephens, Troy Watson and Tobee Oyeleye and will also be without standouts Roderic Green (academic ineligibility) and Andrew Dalou, who returned home to attend junior college and improve his academics. However, they do return much of the core from last year’s team and have brought in several recruits and transfers.
“This group in particular has a lot of togetherness; their team chemistry is really good,” Wagstaff said. “Their work rate is really high and it’s been a pleasure so far to work with them.”
One such returner, senior Matt Wilson, will look to build upon his team-leading 15 goals from a season ago. Despite an injury that kept Wilson away from training for much of the offseason, Wagstaff said he’s never seen Wilson more focused and committed to soccer.
“I’ve watched Matt through the youth levels where he was outstanding player, I recruited him for Oakland University when I was the assistant coach there and we have a really strong bond together,” Wagstaff said. “Sometimes it’s like watching a man against boys. He’s tall, he’s gotten stronger, he’s got pace and his ability to score goals has got to be one of the best in the country in my mind.”
Much like his coach, Wilson has high hopes for himself and his team in 2017.
“We have really strong team chemistry this year,” Wilson said. “Everyone is buying in to what the coaches are saying,. I think it’s going to be a great season. We have some new transfers coming in offensively, and we’ve been working together and they’re really good. I hope they have just as good of seasons as I do.”
While the team won’t begin the regular season until Friday, they have scrimmaged three other schools over the past two weeks. The team beat a top NAIA school in University of Northwestern Ohio 2-1 on Tuesday, Aug. 22, and got both its goals from newcomer junior Connor Rutz, who transferred in from Schoolcraft College. The squad also scrimmaged Adrian College and came away with a 3-2 win, along with a scrimmage win against Kalamazoo College.
In addition to Rutz, another offensive addition to this year’s team is junior striker Michael Shaikly, who transferred in from Findlay when it left the GLIAC at the end of last year.
“I think (Rutz) will weigh in with some goals this year for sure,” Wagstaff said. “Shaikly was the GLIAC freshman of the year in 2015 and will hopefully provide us with some goals as well.”
Following a 2016 conference championship, SVSU was again selected to win the GLIAC, typically one of the most competitive in all of Division II soccer. In its title defense, the Cardinals will again be tested by the likes of Tiffin, Northwood and GLIAC newcomer Davenport. Wagstaff stressed that while another GLIAC title is certainly an expectation, shifting focus toward the GLIAC tournament and the NCAA playoffs will be important to the postseason success of the team. The GLIAC tournament champion will now receive an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs, increasing the importance of that competition.
The team begins its season with four in-region, non-conference games against Quincy, Truman (Sept. 3), Alderson Broaddus (Sept. 8) and Ohio Valley (Sept. 10). SVSU begins conference play Sept. 15 as it travels to Northern Michigan, then takes on last year’s GLIAC runner-up, Tiffin, on the road Sept. 22.
To repeat as conference champions, SVSU will have to make up for over 15 goals coming from the likes of Oyeleye, Green and Stephens and will have to replace the defensive leadership provided by Watson and others. However, with much of its core returning and a slew of newcomers expected to make an immediate impact, SVSU may be well on track to competing for another GLIAC championship.
“Consistency and creativity are what I believe our team will need this season if we want to win the conference title again,” Ortiz said. “The season is short, and finding the right group of players that you can trust to consistently compete at their highest skill level every single game is crucial.”