Aug. 25, 2008
As Steve Simmons enters his sixth season as Northern Illinois’ head men’s soccer coach, he is focused on a new theme for the 2008 team: family.
“Coming together as a team, that is going to be the mantra for us,” Simmons said.
Not that teams in the past haven’t been on the same page, as winning a school-record 45 games in the last four seasons shows. But developing a close-knit bond among teammates has moved to the forefront of Simmons’ priorities.
“The family mantra has been important, but, more so this year than ever, it has got to be that way,” he said. “We have to take that concept, which is very important, to a heightened level.”
Simmons said the movement must be shouldered by his veteran players who have been through the highs and lows of college soccer.
“Our juniors and seniors have experienced winning MAC titles and have gone through a disappointing season,” Simmons said. “They’ve experienced the spectrum, and I think nothing can replace experience.”
Two seasons ago, the Huskies won a school-record 15 matches, winning a MAC Championship and making the second round of the NCAA Tournament along the way. Last year, NIU finished with seven wins, placing fifth in the MAC.
“(Former NIU Football Coach) Joe Novak said it very succinctly when he said ‘winning is fragile,’ and I agree,” Simmons said. “I feel confident that we’ll take the lessons from the past, good and not so good, and use them to our advantage.”
Simmons hopes his 17 returning letterwinners will help pass the knowledge they’ve gained onto the younger players. Senior Drew Jeskey, who has started in his last 41 appearances, will help shepherd the team through the upcoming year.
“Drew is looked upon as a good natural leader,” Simmons said. “I’m excited for him to have that responsibility.”
Jeskey will be the key member of a defense that lost three seniors to graduation.
“We did lose three seniors on the backline, but we have players who have apprenticed underneath those three,” Simmons said. “The transition is going to be more seamless than people think.”
While Simmons always keeps his starting spots open for competition, juniors Josh Karsten and Danny Lopez, who combined for 18 starts last year, and sophomore J.C. Aikenhead, who saw time in 11 matches, could see a majority of time on the back row.
Senior goalkeeper Joe Zimka will direct the defense from the box, where he has been the Huskies’ primary net-minder for the last two seasons. In 2006, he set an NCAA record for goals allowed average, and he has recorded 15 career shutouts, fifth-most in NIU history.
“Joe has had a very good spring,” Simmons said. “He has had a chance to train with Chivas and the Columbus Crew this summer and you can sense a very quiet confidence because of what he’s been doing in his preparation.”
Providing goals to give the defense room for error will be up to a mix of returning players and newcomers. Senior Chris Johnson, the Huskies’ top returning scorer, will be a prime factor in the offense.
“The way Chris strikes the ball when he gets in the danger area, he doesn’t shoot, he finishes,” Simmons said.
Johnson, who Simmons’ described as “the most athletic player in the conference,” tallied three goals and two assists in 2007, his first season of division I soccer. Jeskey complimented those efforts with two goals, as did junior Ben Thomas. Sophomore Juan Hoyos rounds out NIU’s returning goal-scorers. The Aurora, Ill. native put in the game-winner against Western Illinois.
“With scoring, sometimes you look to individuals who are going to be able to do it, sometimes by committee,” Simmons said. “I think having one or two players who can score gives us goal support, which I equate it to run support in baseball.”
In addition to counting on his returners, Simmons could look to a bevy of newcomers to shoulder some of the attack. NSCAA All-American Brad Horton, who scored eight hat tricks as a high school senior, spent the spring practicing with the Huskies, which should give him an edge in the fall. The Colony, Texas native Jason Guehler could factor into the offense, as well. Guehler won the Golden Boot at the USYSA National Tournament for leading his club Andromeda to its second-straight national championship. Simmons said Norwegian forward Finn Jor or Mundelein High School graduate Johnny Tyma may also find time in the offense.
“The only thing that the newer players don’t have as an advantage is that experience playing in college games and playing a MAC schedule,” Simmons said. “But they are certainly talented.”
The Huskies are also full of talent in the midfield, where competition for starting spots will be intense throughout the year. Senior Steve Kolzow and junior Kyle Knotek were stalwarts in the middle last season, playing in 19 and 17 matches, respectively, and combining for three assists. Sophomores Luis De La Cerda, Engebreth Faerden, and Luis Mojica all made significant contributions in their freshman campaigns, and should also factor in. As should senior Brian Abdallah, who has appeared in 30 matches in the Cardinal and Black.
Simmons expects to tinker with the midfield on a game-by-game basis.
“We have guys that are versatile,” he said. “Depending on how we align the midfield systematically, we’ll shuffle people in and out based on matchups and so forth.”
The way all the players on the team are used could change from the relatively conservative tactics Simmons has used in the past. Both a new surface and a new roster will influence the team’s style in the upcoming year.
“Any top-notch coach, I believe, will be picking the kids who fit in their puzzle,” Simmons said. “However, sometimes the pieces you have coming in aren’t the ones you’re expecting; it could be a good piece but different. And I think that’s important to your identify. If you have a couple pieces that are different or can offer more, you make sure your puzzle fits with those pieces.”
For Simmons and the Huskies, the right players and right tactics are only half the battle. This season, it will all come back to family.
“At the end of the day, a good friend of mine and I were talking about tactics this summer, and he said, ‘Confidence and motivation fuel tactics,’” Simmons said. “For NIU this year, it’s going to be coming together as a family at a level we haven’t done before. That is the key. That is the fuel.”
Northern Illinois opens the 2008 season at the Northwestern Lakeside Classic this weekend. The Huskies face IUPUI Friday at 5 p.m. and take on San Francisco Sunday at noon.