Heading into his 10th season at the helm of Concordia University men’s soccer, Jason Weides witnessed a lot of things he liked throughout the second semester. While prideful of reaching the GPAC championship game for the second year in a row, the Bulldogs are energized by a feeling that the 2016 campaign wasn’t all that it could have been.
However, there were few things to complain about this spring. Concordia and its sturdy defensive efforts did not yield a single goal in three spring contests. Expectations are again high.
“The program has obviously grown and the expectations have changed,” Weides said. “The bar has been raised to the point where our players expect to be there (in the GPAC championship). They know it’s not going to be given to them, but the expectation is that we’re in that final and competing for a conference championship. Those expectations just push each individual a little bit more. I think they’re able to instill that right away into the incoming classes.”
One unpleasant surprise for the opposition is the return of striker Marcelo Hernandez, who dazzles with his footwork. Hernandez actually participated in senior day festivities last season, but made the decision to attend grad classes at Concordia and exhaust his one season of remaining eligibility. The native of Quito, Ecuador, garnered first team All-GPAC honors and came up with four game-winning goals in 2016.
Hernandez will again be a big factor in the Bulldogs’ success this fall. Weides is happy to welcome him back with open arms.
“He’s going to get his master’s degree and he gets one more chance to play while doing that,” Weides said. “It’s a great opportunity for him to get that extra education and use up his eligibility. For us to have him for another season is great news.”
Hernandez adds sizzle offensively, but the team’s biggest strength appears to again be goal prevention. Says Weides, “We look strong defensively.” A key piece in that backline is first team all-conference performer Florian Caraballo, an outside back. A host of additional holdovers Luke Batters, Toby Down and Aries Fung possess extensive experience as defenders.
Of course there was one obvious absence from the lineup this spring: goalkeeper Mark Horsburgh, who has graduated after two years as the starter. This is the opportunity that junior-to-be Jack Bennett has been waiting for. The Oxford, England, native has bided his time and has worked closely with goalkeeper coach Dan Ball to be ready to take over at keeper. Bennett will just have to fend off the newcomers that arrive this fall.
“Jack is prepared,” Weides said. “He’s done well to learn and grow over the last two years. Though everyone wants to play, he’s been patient and has focused on daily improvement. Coach Dan Ball has been great with our keepers. He really helped Jack develop this last year. We expect that he can step up and do great things for us.”
Not yet mentioned are the captains, Micah Lehenbauer and Lewis Rathbone. A second team all-conference honoree last season, Lehenbauer equaled Hernandez for a team high with eight goals. Rathbone made a big splash in that category in the postseason. Some other familiar names are Angel Alvarez and Carlos Ferrer.
From an experience standpoint, this team is obviously further ahead of where it was this time a year ago. The confidence within the program has grown throughout Weides’ tenure, and this spring did nothing to curb that swagger.
“A year ago there were a few more unknowns just because we had such a big senior class,” Weides said. “We knew we had some good players coming in that were going to help us and we knew we had some returners that were going to be impactful. There were just so many question marks with a whole new back line. I really thought we might struggle more defensively. That was one of the pleasant surprises of the fall that we did so well defensively. I think there are less question marks about that. We have a strong group of returners coming back. Some guys had some really good spring seasons. Plus we know we have a really solid recruiting class coming in.”
Weides says he noticed a lot of gains that were made both individually and collectively this spring. The early part of the second semester is always heavy on strength and conditioning, meaning lots of time spent working out with Coach Todd Berner. That leads into futsal and indoor soccer activities while the weather is still cold and blustery. Eventually, the spring arrived and the team spent roughly six weeks training outside. That period included three games.
The spring served as a last hurrah for assistant coach Nico Luque, who has spent three seasons as Weides’ right hand man. Luque helped Weides during a time when the program has accomplished some firsts in school history – such as reaching the national tournament in 2015. Luque will still be close by. He accepted a position as a full-time assistant at Nebraska Wesleyan. Said Weides, “Nico has been a big part of our recent success. He’s certainly going to be missed. He’s a great coach and a good friend.”
The likes of Horsburgh and Luque will be difficult to replace, but what remains intact gives Weides and company plenty to be excited about. The spring season helped confirm that the Bulldogs can play with anyone, even that team to the west that just won a national title. Concordia has a genuine belief in itself.
“You can definitely see it’s a team that’s hungry for this fall and they’re going to put in the work,” Weides said. “We feel that although there was some success this past fall, we didn’t achieve some of our goals. We want to make sure that we achieve our goals this fall.”