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Men's Soccer Seniors Ready To Seize Moment As Southwestern Hosts SCAC Championships

Men's Soccer Seniors Ready To Seize Moment As Southwestern Hosts SCAC Championships

In a season full of overtime matches, comebacks, and golden goals, few moments standout for the Southwestern University Pirates men's soccer team as much as its 3-2 victory over Colorado College at home.

After trailing 2-0 at the end of the first half, the Pirates climbed back with goals from seniors Alex Newell and Jake Swonke.

In overtime, Kip Karschnik got the ball near the left corner with a single defender in space and gave a devastating left-to-right move to get to the middle; unleashing a curving shot that ricocheted off a Colorado defender into the back of the net for the walk-off goal.  

Off came Karschnik's jersey (and out came the yellow card) as the Pirates sprinted to the sidelines to exuberantly celebrate with teammates. Somewhere in the midst of the pile, seniors Jake Swonke, Alex Newell, Colin Maloney, and Zach Gibson basked in the moment.

"That's my favorite moment [of my collegiate career]," Maloney said. "Just jumping in that dogpile and living in the moment with my teammates."

The hope of the men's soccer program is such moments flow so naturally, in four or five years they're simply embedded as tradition. In truth, even the simple act of this celebration was something unknown to the Pirates at the beginning of the season.

Heading into his first season as head coach, Dustin Norman implemented a celebration protocol requiring players to run to the sideline to celebrate with teammates after each goal. The early results were…less than ideal.

Players jogged to the sidelines—some at the behest of pointing teammates as a reminder—giving scripted chest bumps and awkward greetings.

"It was forced. I asked them to celebrate the goal, told them where and that it was their time," Norman said. "And they essentially jogged over, lined up and gave high fives. It wasn't exactly inspiring."

A season full of dramatic victories—the Pirates have played in six overtime matches this season, including two double-overtime draws—has given Southwestern University plenty of practice. By the end of season, when the Pirates defeated the University of Dallas with a golden goal from Andrew Hernandez, the juxtaposition of the season's first goal and its last offered a stark contrast.

Water bottles and bodies flew through the air freely, much to the delight of Coach Norman.

"The difference in ownership and enjoying the moment was great," Norman said. "To see them really invest in a tough match at home, down two goals, and climb back with each successive celebration getting bigger, it was a lot of fun to see the progression in that."

The aim is to instill a collaborative culture by implementing it into every aspect, even celebrations. The results have been positive, improving from 6-12-3 last season (with a 3-8-3 conference record), squeaking into the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) Championships as the sixth seed, to a 10-5-2 (8-4-2) record and the third seed this year.

"It was kind of cool to be part of this," team co-captain Jake Swonke said. "To help establish a new winning culture, knowing in a few years I'll come to a game, see these celebrations, knowing I helped to start it."

Most players head into their senior seasons looking to cement the legacies of their time at a university. With a new head coach, the Pirates' four seniors spent theirs laying entirely new foundations.

"Any time there's a culture shift or coaching changes, there's a chance people won't like it; most humans don't like change," Norman said. "[These seniors] were a group I was unfamiliar with coming in, not knowing them on a personal level. But they invested wholeheartedly in the process, giving everything they had whether they were a 90-minute starter or guy grinding it out in practice.

"Once they saw what was being asked, they did a good job of ensuring other guys followed suit. For a first-year head coach with the program, I couldn't ask for a better group of seniors."

Such buy-in wasn't guaranteed, especially considering the sheer amount of changes; from the initial awkward celebrations to Coach Norman's unorthodox set pieces with long throw-ins and unique runs off the ball.

Few have been tasked with change as much as senior co-captain Alex Newell. A year ago, Newell was a featured attacker, delivering the game-winning header to upset the then three-seeded Colorado College in the quarterfinals of the 2017 SCAC Championships.

To start this season, Norman had Newell playing every position except goalie until an early season injury cemented him as the team's full-time defensive midfielder.

"It's not easy for any attacking player to be converted to defense in his senior year," Norman said. "But an injury put him there and by the end of that first game, we knew Alex was going to be our starting defensive midfielder for the entirety of the season.

"His mix of technical ability and willingness to do a lot of gritty things other players might overlook, from tackles to winning headers and being the target player on long throws; even though he's not the biggest player, he manages to get his head on like 90 percent of aerial challenges."

Teammate Colin Maloney described Newell as a warrior, admiring his ability to compete for the ball.

"If you watch him play, he heads the ball 30 to 40 times a game. I don't know about the impact on his brain," Maloney joked, "but it's incredible to watch. It's inspiring."

The Pirates are tied with Trinity for second in conference in shutout with eight. With a lack of defensive box score statistics in college soccer, however, one needs to catch Newell after a game to read his impact.

"Watching him after a game, walking with ice on both shoulders, ribs, hip and knee, he gets the most out of his body," Norman said. "He's playing through minor injuries and playing through scratches and bruises maybe a younger player might want to take a day off but he just sees it as another day."

It's a mentality shared by Swonke, who missed some time earlier this season with an injury and returned to score the game-winning goal against Centenary.

"Swonke brings an unmatched level of confidence and work rate," Norman said. "Very few guys are willing to shoulder the load the way he is on the field.

"It's palpable watching the games to see how much ground he covers. Even after 20 minutes, he's sprinting and doing the little things. He's a big part of the heart of this team. When he's on the field, we're different."

Swonke is the Pirates' leading goal scorer with five on 17 shots, contributing two assists and a total of 12 points. He's also a bit of a cut-up, introducing himself with a British accent, Australian slang, and Barcelona jersey upon first meeting Maloney back in their freshman year.

"I remember starting off by playing FIFA and he just kept calling me mate in a funny accent," Maloney said. "But he's our goal scorer. When we're in a hole, that's where we're going to get out of it."

Maloney began the season out of the starting lineup, grinding through practices without the promise of playing time. Over the course of the season, he forced his way onto the coaches' radar with his intensity in practice.

"As the season wore on, his athleticism and tenacity were just obvious," Norman said. "The day after a match, we have what we call regeneration practices. They're hardest on players who didn't play the night before but it's their best opportunity to come out and get better and keep their fitness.

"That's where you could just see it with Colin. We'd talk about these practices afterwards and [assistant coach] Marco Carvalho mentioned his name every single time. That's a player you're going to be able to trust with hard tasks, which is why he's earned a starting role late in the season."

Though his playing time has been limited, Zach Gibson has worked behind the scenes, mentoring teammates and setting an example with his work ethic.

"Zach is committed. He's always a great teammate," Maloney said. "He sits next to me in the locker room and he always has a great attitude, always smiling."

"His attitude is second to none," Norman said. "For a senior who hasn't gotten the load of minutes one would likely hope for, he's been the gold standard of effort and attitude. More often than not, players end up walking away."

The current senior class of four was once 11 in their freshman season. A late season start on senior day and another postseason was a point of pride for Gibson.

"We all love the game, so any chance to keep playing in this team environment for four years is something special we can hold onto for the rest of our lives," Gibson said.

This season has provided more than the previous one, which went seven matches without a win.

"A lot of people didn't know how to react, so they were hanging their heads," Newell said. "But we continued to work and hold each other accountable."

"The team culture wasn't what it could've been," Maloney added. "It was negative at times and not always fun to be a part of."

"We're very competitive, so dealing with 2-3 disappointing seasons was tough," Gibson said. "So to kind of push through it and see these guys working really hard is cool. We had a two-game losing streak and we weren't happy about it but it was great to see everyone come together and push towards a good seed in the conference tournament."

Southwestern University is hosting this year's SCAC Championship Tournament, giving the seniors a great platform for a fitting sendoff.

"I'm so pumped for that," Swonke said.

"We desperately want to play in the national tournament," Maloney added.

"It's a great way to be sent off as seniors," Newell said. "Well, not get sent off. We want to win."

The Pirates play Austin College on Friday, Nov. 2 at 1:30 p.m. in a rematch of last weekend's scoreless overtime match. The winner of the match will face Colorado College, giving the Pirates a potential shot of upsetting them in back-to-back years and, perhaps, a repeat of their overtime golden goal dogpile.

"I told [the team] we were going to live for moments, whether it's the fitness test, first practice, or first match," Norman said. "We want to take each moment as its own passage in time because if we can break the game into moments and execute, at the end of 90 minutes, we have a chance to win."

In a year full of memorable moments, the team celebrations have been a wonderful new beginning for Southwestern. Now, its senior class doesn't want them to end.