Straight from print: A legacy four years in the making
Despite falling in the conference championships, the class of 2017 left its mark on AU’s men’s soccer program
This article originally appeared in The Eagle’s December 9 special edition.
They had been working toward this goal for four years. Nine men, each with distinctive personalities, unique backgrounds and differing approaches to the game, had one last year to achieve their dreams. They had been close, achieving more success every year, but the title still alluded them. They wanted to be Patriot League Champions.
Lucas Belanger, Chris Fanet, Michael Cherry, Joe Iraola, Panos Nakhid, Dale Ludwig, Dimitri Beauchamp, Kibu Mbaluku and Jake Garcia stood on the Lehigh University soccer field on Nov. 5 and smiled. Holding up a “1” with their fingers, they acknowledged and celebrated the fact that they won the conference regular season title. The ultimate quest was far from over with the conference championship game still looming, but on Nov. 5, the Eagles were winners.
Just six days later, on Nov. 11, the Eagles took the field again. Outscoring Bucknell in overtime, AU found themselves back in the championship game, a familiar position. Finally on Nov. 13, one team, two overtimes and 12 penalty shots stood between AU and the end of the tournament, but this year, just like in 2015, the Eagles fell short.
The nine seniors and their teammates looked around the field dejected. After a season of hard-fought wins and a regular season championship, the Eagles failed to win the one title they wanted the most. And yet, in the wake of their loss, as nine college careers ended and the 2016 season came to a close, the class of 2017 now has the chance to look backwards, instead of forward. They have a chance to reflect on the successes and heartbreaks of the last four years and pass their lessons on to the remaining members of the team. They have a chance to be instructors.
“This [result] doesn’t take away from us winning the regular season and hosting the [Patriot League] championship and what this senior class has meant to us,” AU head soccer coach Todd West told The Eagle after the game on Nov. 13. “I can’t put it into words, but I love all those guys, [the seniors] and they meant a lot to this program and this university.”
Just before the weekend tournament on Nov. 19 and 20, Dale Ludwig, who earned distinction as the Patriot League midfielder of the year in 2016, commented on the development of the team, stating that the past four years have been a journey, but a journey that has set a positive culture for the team and will benefit the rest of the players in the future.
“I think definitely we’ve turned the program around after the first year, we kind of had a rough start my first year,” Ludwig said. “I think with some of the players that were in the program at the time and now that we’ve definitely improved, and I think we overall have a better attitude towards how we play and how we are playing together.”
When each of the seniors arrived on campus in August 2013 for their first experience with college pre-season, they faced the challenge of carrying the momentum from the 2012 season forward and advancing to the Patriot League tournament championship game again as the team had the previous fall. From 2009 to 2012, the Eagles finished as Patriot League finalists, but were never able to clinch that top spot.
The 2013 season looked promising as the new class was ushered in and head coach Todd West reflected positively on the first home game with his new team. He noted the unique chemistry between the athletes, singling out Iraola and Ludwig for their ability to move the ball across the field and improve their style of play quickly to catch up with the collegiate pace of play.
“Those guys are dynamic forwards and we expect them to continue to get better,” West said of Ludwig and Iraola to The Eagle in 2013.
The positive thoughts and energy quickly faded though as the fall 2013 season ended with a losing record of 7-8-5.
Yet, the blame for the 2013 result doesn’t fall to this year’s seniors nor does it fall to any particular member of the 2013-2014 soccer team. Boston University and Loyola joined the Patriot League in 2013, adding additional competition for AU and posing new threats. Anchored behind the class of 2017, however, AU has slowly worked its way back to the top of the conference.
In 2014, AU went 11-4-4, as the then-sophomore class earned its fair share of accolades on and off the field. Cherry, Fanet, Iraola, Ludwig, Belanger and Mbaluku all earned Patriot League Academic Honor Roll honors for their academic performance in the 2014 season, and Ludwig and Iraola also earned a place on the All-Patriot League Team as a result of their athletic achievements. Ludwig led the team with 50 shots in his second season, and notched three game-winning goals to round out his sophomore campaign.
The record of 11-4-4, while an improvement from the year before, still fell short of helping the team win a conference title, and as fall turned to winter, winter to spring and spring to summer, the team continued to train.
“Our motto is the most important play is the next play, and back to the present, whether we win or we lose or we have a good play or we have a bad play,” West said. ‘What’s next? Let’s take care of that.”
The senior Eagles started their final season, like the previous three, with an exhibition game, the Kuykenstrong D.C. College Cup and the Capitol Cup. The team recorded an even number of victories and defeats in their first 13 game before two games in mid-October, which set the pace for their longest winning run of the year with three wins and a tie, just in time for the Patriot League tournament.
In its final four regular season games, AU recorded three wins and a tie, with senior athletes proving to be the biggest contributors. Against Holy Cross on Oct. 30, senior athletes contributed to two of the team’s three points, and in a similar performance six days later, the class of 2017 shined again. Garcia, a member of the Patriot League All-Conference Second Team kept AU alive in the Patriot League tournament with a game-winner against Bucknell, and the team remained confident and positive. Before the Bucknell game, Ludwig explained the team’s excitement and expectations for the tournament, emphasizing the focus on the title.
“We were there last year,” Ludwig said. “We made it to the championship, unfortunately, we didn't win, we kind of got dragged out of our playing style but going forward I think we have a pretty good chance, I think our team is a little bit more prepared and I just think that our coaches expect higher expectations for us to come through this year.”
AU missed its goal of winning the championship by just one penalty kick, but West said he hopes the AU community recognizes the work that his team put in, and he looks to the future because he believes the most important play is still to come.
“I’d like them to know that we have a dedicated group of hardworking guys, it’s a good group of guys, and they bleed for this University and this athletic department and they bleed for each other,” West said. “We’re as proud of this group as any we’ve ever had. I’d like to the University community to come out and see what they might be missing.”