The way the 2023 season ended remains fresh on the minds of those associated with the Concordia University Men’s Soccer program. With time, appreciation for what was accomplished this fall will grow considerably. The ’23 Bulldogs will forever be known as the first team in the program’s history to navigate through an undefeated regular season. Head Coach Jason Weides’ squad did not taste defeat until the untimely 3-0 home loss to Dordt in the GPAC quarterfinals.
Twelve days following that downer, Concordia dealt with the disappointment of learning it had not been selected for an at-large national tournament berth. Since then, Weides and his coaching staff and student-athletes have attempted to place the entire picture into proper perspective.
“It is tough to put it into perspective,” Weides said. “There are so many things to celebrate. I’m not sure the sting will ever wear off. It fades a bit with time, just like anything in life. I think we’ll always look back and think about the ‘what ifs.’ The tiniest difference could have gotten us over that hump and gave us an opportunity to go further and accomplish just a little bit more. This team was prepared and capable of doing that. We’ve had some good teams that were prepared to succeed at nationals, but I’m not sure we’ve had any team as prepared as this team this year. We’ll take that in stride and acknowledge that we didn’t make it. We didn’t book our ticket the way that we could have. We left it to chance, but there are so many things to celebrate individually and collectively.”
Not only were the 2023 Bulldogs the first in school history to go undefeated during the regular season, they were also the first to crack the top 25 of the official NAIA coaches’ poll. Concordia managed that feat on Sept. 25 when it landed at No. 25. The Bulldogs were a mainstay in the national poll and spent the season’s final eight weeks inside the top 25, peaking at No. 18. All season long, the Bulldogs were rated as the GPAC’s top team. On Oct. 25, Weides’ crew routed Doane, 5-1, and ended the regular season at 13-0-4.
Appropriately, eight Concordia players earned all-conference awards, including first teamers Ferdi Hagen, Carter Hinman and Matt Schultz. Second team accolades went to Nolan Fuelberth, Jarrod Henson, Isaiah Shaddick and Braden Spath. Both Schultz and Shaddick returned in 2023 as fifth-year members of the program. When fully healthy, the Bulldogs were undoubtedly one of the nation's 25 best teams. Despite the rash of injuries that hit late in the season, Concordia kept getting results.
“We’ve been around since around 1970 and never had an undefeated season,” Weides said. “There aren’t a lot of programs around the nation that can tout an undefeated regular season. It’s really challenging. Even good teams have a little bit of a slip up or you just run into a team that’s better than you. To be able to go through the regular season unscathed is definitely impressive. We talked to the team about how injuries didn’t keep us from achieving our goals. They made it more challenging. We had a lot of injuries in the back quarter of the season. The first three quarters we were probably as healthy as we’ve ever been. We were unfortunate to pick up some injuries to major contributors, team captains and a first team all-conference striker. We had guys step up and play important minutes. I was really impressed with the team for overcoming it in a lot of situations.”
One of the great stories of 2023 was the breakthrough for Hinman, a Gretna High School product. Hinman ramped up his offensive production from one goal in 2022 to a team high 10 goals as a junior this fall. Had he not been sidelined for three games, Hinman may have challenged for the GPAC goal scoring crown. As it was, Hinman finished with the fourth most goals among GPAC players as a consistent force in Concordia’s attacking third.
Said Weides, “I think Carter is the perfect example of how we want to develop our players. Carter came in as a touted freshman from Gretna. He was all-state and I think came in and did a good job right away as a freshman. Certainly his freshman year to now looks a lot different. We see ourselves as a developers who can make players better if they commit to the process. He succeeded at that. To get to double-digit goals shows how he’s improved so much. I’m really proud of him.”
While Hinman became a standout at striker, and the team posted a combined 43 goals in 18 games, the biggest strength of the 2023 squad was its ability to stifle opposing forwards. The Bulldogs finished the 2023 campaign ranked 10th nationally for goals against average (0.72). Opponents put only 52 shots on frame for the entirety of the fall.
In a rarity, Concordia had two goalkeepers earn all-conference accolades: Fuelberth and Gabriel Mendoza (honorable mention). Fuelberth and Mendoza split time in goal while often being kept clean by the likes of Hagen, Spath and team captain Iker Casanova. Collectively, they helped the Bulldogs rack up eight shutouts. Only twice all season did Concordia concede more than one goal.
“We were fortunate to return most of our back line and a couple strong keepers,” Weides said. “Our team pressing improved, our team counter pressing improved and our defensive cohesion improved. The returners did a great job of getting our newcomers to buy in right away and understand that every position plays an important role in defending. If we were going to go anywhere, it had to start there. It really did right away in our opening scrimmage. We defended really well. Our keepers came up huge when they had to make a save and our entire team did a great job limiting quality chances. It’s a staple of our program to be stout defensively.”
Looking ahead to 2024, the Bulldogs will say goodbye to Schultz and Shaddick, who have exhausted their collegiate eligibility as important cornerstones for a five-year stretch that included the 2022 GPAC tournament championship run. On senior day, Concordia celebrated seniors in Casanova, Michael Lindberg, Spath and Ryan Wokutch. Each will have the option to return next fall, should one or more decide to use their ‘COVID year’ of eligibility. Either way, the Bulldogs believe they are positioned to enjoy another special season in 2024.
Says Weides, “It’s hard not to look at one game as defining our season, but I think as we move on and further separate from this moment, we’ll see that this was a great season. I think it’s also going to make future Bulldogs better prepared to succeed in those moments. We’re always building brick by brick. We’re standing on the backs of those before us, and I think this is another opportunity for the teams to come to stand on the back of the 2023 team.”