This season marked a new chapter in the history of the Southwestern University men's soccer program, going 12-6-3 and making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. The story of the Pirates' new beginning is steeped in a team fighting to stave off an unavoidable ending.
Most rebuilding programs begin with a leveling of sorts, clearing the landscape to lay new foundations. In his first season running the men's soccer program, head coach Dustin Norman found some unexpected cornerstones to build on.
"I told the administration and coaches we were absolutely blessed with the senior group we had this year," Norman said. "The leadership they provided, their willingness to buy in, put their heads down and work regardless of what we asked of them was absolutely priceless."
Norman and assistant coach Marco Carvalho went into the season determined to make sense of a roster they had no history with.
"Our first priority was to figure out the players, identify the areas we could be successful in," Norman said. "From a culture standpoint, we wanted to build a commitment to functioning together as a team, working hard, and giving our best regardless of whether it's playing 90 minutes a game, five minutes per game, or being a practice player for the week."
Swonke returned as the team's leading scorer but was tasked with continuing to produce in a new system. Newell dealt with being moved to a new position in his final season. Maloney began the season on the bubble between bit player and practice team, working his way into a significant role as the season wore on. Gibson remained doing work behind the scenes, pushing teammates in practice and supporting them from the sidelines.
All four bought into the system in a way that made it difficult for anyone else not to follow suit.
"The team culture wasn't what it could've been," Maloney said, referring to the three prior losing seasons in which the Pirates went a combined 20-38-3. "It was negative at times and not always fun to be a part of."
The coaching staff implemented little things that seem trivial on the surface, like mandated team celebrations after goals, but snowballed into great dividends by the end of the season.
"One of the biggest strengths of this team was its camaraderie," Norman said. "You saw the group genuinely come together, working as a whole.
"It was something we had to work on early but it grew as the season went on and as we started to win, the true drive and passion for winning games and expressing themselves on the field started to come out."
The Pirates didn't always play a beautiful style, at times relying on set pieces and throw-ins to move the ball the length of the field incrementally. Their season moved forward in a similar pace, building momentum with little moments.
Southwestern University defeated the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor 4-2 in a preseason match, then almost went shot-for-shot with Chicago, who advanced to the Final Four in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, losing 1-0 with one potential game-tying shot bouncing off the crossbar and Chicago goalie Aaron Katsimpalis making several other huge saves.
The Pirates carried that momentum into a victory over nationally-ranked Rutgers-Newark. The catalyst for the season, however, may have come on the road against Colorado College with a 1-0 victory in overtime.
"We'd just hit a patch of adversity after tying Johnson & Wales when we felt we could've done better," Norman said. "We were on the road against a Colorado team on quite a bit of a streak, winning in overtime in a difficult situation; I think the guys garnered more momentum from that than any other game during the regular season."
Southwestern overcame tough situations all season, playing in seven overtime matches with three that went into double overtime, compiling a 3-1-3 record in such situations, including a 1-1 draw against Trinity University in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) championship match, falling in penalty kicks.
The Pirates didn't standout in any one area of the game. In the SCAC, Southwestern finished third in shots, fourth in points and goals per game, sixth in assists per game, fourth in goals allowed, fourth in saves, and third in goals against average.
What they did was execute a game plan with precision, practically willing each match to be played on their terms.
"We judged every game by the level of execution in the little moments of the game, ensuring whatever we worked on during the week, talked about, or looked at on film was executed on the field," Norman said. "I think going into the conference tournament at the end of the year, we viewed it through a different lens than we would have at the beginning of the season.
"We came in as a group and ended the season as a team. Any time you can accomplish something like that, you give yourself an opportunity to achieve a lot of things."
This year, it was enough to earn the Pirates the No. 1 overall ranking in the West Region, earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"For a team that achieved so much and had a moment of sheer disappointment [losing in penalty kicks] in the conference championship, I'll never forget the joy of the senior group being given one more chance, one more week of training, one more opportunity," Norman said. "The celebration in the locker room was pretty epic."
For their efforts, the Pirates received some individual recognition, with Swonke being named First Team All-SCAC and Newell, Kip Karschnik, and Brendan Dauth earning Second Team Honors. Dauth was also named to the All-West Region Third Team, highlighting a defensive backline that helped carry the Pirates to second in the SCAC in shutouts and should make for a formidable defense again next season with Dauth, Garrison Van Houten, and Wil Mekelburg.
"Ultimately, it was their collective work as a group that allowed Brendan to be recognized. If we don't find success, no one on the team is going to be recognized," Norman said. "And success, for us, was driven by keeping the ball out of the net and ensuring we kept the back line locked down. As a group, they really bought in and worked hard, giving 100 percent of everything they had."
"There were times where Brendan was left nearly passed out after games, Wil was hunched over, needing care for different body parts, and Gary was left bright red from the effort he'd given. I couldn't have asked for a more succinct group in the back."
The Pirates' success in year one of Norman's tenure showed the groundwork for a successful program. Now, it's just a matter of raising the ceiling.
"We've laid a foundation and built a level of expectation that will require us to work to maintain that," Norman said. "While we've raised our own personal standard as a program, once you meet that standard, you have to set a new bar and a new target.
"We'll continue to put our head down and work and hopefully at the end of next season, we're playing a little later with a few more wins playing for a bigger trophy."