The 2017 Concordia University men’s soccer team did not simply set a new program standard for wins in a season, it shattered the record and laughed in its face. By season’s end, the Bulldogs boasted an overall mark of 16-3-1, far exceeding the previous best of 12 wins in a season by the 2000 team that 10th-year head coach Jason Weides played for. The campaign also brought a third-straight trip to the GPAC tournament final.
Nearly every time a challenge presented itself, this group proved equal to the task. On the day (Oct. 18) this team broke the school wins record, Midland shocked Concordia with a goal in the final seconds that forced overtime. Then in double overtime, senior Micah Lehenbauer ended the game with the golden goal, causing a ruckus on the Bulldog sideline. The goal and the ensuing celebration stand out as one the most thrilling moments of an overall thrilling season.
“There’s no doubt it was a good season and something those guys can be proud of,” Weides said. “They accomplished a lot and set a lot of records along the way with Concordia men’s soccer history. There have been some good teams in Concordia’s history. It’s still hard because we wanted more. As we look back, we need to remember all of the things that we did accomplish.”
The only thing missing from this fall was the type of euphoria felt by the 2015 team that surprised then 19th-ranked Hastings in the conference tournament game. Instead, a large group of nine seniors were forced to deal with realization that their careers had ended along with a 2-1 loss at No. 7 Hastings in the conference final on Nov. 9. An at-large national tournament bid was a long shot despite one of the nation’s largest win totals and a second-place GPAC finish.
A shot at nationals may have died on that November day, but the memories and the achievements of the senior class will live on. They helped Concordia polish off the winningest four-year stretch in program history. Not only were many of the seniors part of the 2015 championship, they also collaborated on a four-year record of 48-23-10, a national tournament berth and long lasting memories. Six seniors were part of the starting lineup when the Bulldogs took the field for the GPAC final.
“I think what I’ll miss the most is it’s just been a fun group of guys to be around,” Weides said. “We enjoyed coming to training every day and interacting with each other. They worked hard, but there were also those lighter moments in the day. Each one of those guys was fun to be around and they all have a professional attitude. I’m just going to miss being around them every day.”
In terms of production, the seniors will be particularly difficult to replace. The senior accounted for 42 of the team’s 51 goals during the program’s most dominant season ever. Each of the team’s first team All-GPAC representatives were seniors in Florian Caraballo, Marcelo Hernandez and Micah Lehenbauer. Thirty-five goals came from three players: Lehenbauer (12), Rathbone (12) and Hernandez (11).
Concordia was also adept at preventing goals, surrendering only 16 in its 20 games. That fact may not have been possible without the services of Caraballo, a transfer from Marshalltown Community College and native of Cordoba, Spain. One of the top defenders in the GPAC, Caraballo even found a way to contribute six assists as a senior.
“He was great. He’s been great since he got here,” Weides said. “He’s a big game player. He was good all year long. He’s the model of consistency in training and in games. You always knew what you were going to get. There was never a bad game. There was never a bad practice. He was always at a high level. He’s such a good defender and one of the most technical players we have on the team. He was at his best all the time.”
Weides also mentioned non-seniors that surpassed expectations, such as junior defender Angel Alvarez, junior goalkeeper Jack Bennett and junior defender Derek Eitzmann. From year-to-year, Weides always seems to employ a steady keeper, even after graduating multi-year starters. A native of Oxford, England, Bennett bided his time behind Mark Horsburgh before moving into a starting role this season. His own work ethic combined with the teaching of goalkeeper coach Dan Ball helped him rank 14th nationally in goals against average.
It all added up to the program’s most successful season in program history by just about any measure. Not only did the 2017 Bulldogs break school records for overall wins and conference wins (seven), they went 8-1 at home, racked up nine shutouts and posted a sparkling goal differential of +35, by far the best of the Weides era, which began in 2008. The program really turned a corner in 2011 and has remained a serious competitor ever since, even as the stars come and go.
“The work put in during the offseason has been a big part of our progression the last seven years,” Weides said. “This senior class was known for working hard in the offseason. Now we’ve got big shoes to fill. We’re expecting to bounce back with a great year next year with different personnel. We’re really excited to get going and add some good guys to the mix. I’m really interested to see how this team develops. We’re really excited about some guys that didn’t play much this year. We’re excited about how they’re going to grow.”
The seniors leave behind an impressive legacy that Weides hopes will be continued by the next wave of up-and-comers. The sophomore class is led by the likes of second team all-conference selection Carlos Ferrer and Matthew Ho. Meanwhile, three freshmen saw considerable action in 2017: Garrett Perry, Joao Pedro Verissimo and Kevin Sanchez. All of the young players will have an opportunity to further prove themselves during the spring season. One thing’s for sure – the seniors will leave a tough act to follow on the heels of a memorable 2017 run.