MEN’S SOCCER: Tops finish season with win over rival

Danny Schoenbaechler

It could have gone completely different.

In fact, it could still be going.

Western’s men’s soccer team finished its season last Friday with a victory against Missouri Valley Conference rival Vanderbilt.

The 2-1 win placed the Hilltoppers in a tie for eighth in the Missouri Valley. But Evansville beat Western 4-1 two weeks ago, giving them the tie-breaker and the conference tournament berth. Only eight of the 10 MVC teams qualify for the postseason.

Western (8-10-1, 2-7 MVC) finished its second consecutive disappointing season. They were 7-10 in 2001, but brought in a new crop of talent for this year’s campaign.

The crew of freshmen proved to be vital in Western’s wins, and in its losses.

“What we needed to do to compete in the conference was to give a lot of young players lots and lots of playing time,” Western coach David Holmes said.

The Toppers started five to six freshmen a game throughout the season.

“I hate making excuses, but we were young,” sophomore Scott DeGaris said. “And we were really inconsistent.”

Western jumped out to a good start with a 4-0 record. Then after stumbling in the Birmingham Fall Classic, the Toppers found themselves 6-3-1 entering conference play.

The Missouri Valley schedule featured games against three top-25 teams. Bradley visited Bowling Green as the No. 10 team in the country and left with a 1-0 win. The game-winner came with less than two minutes remaining in the game.

The Toppers then played Creighton and Southern Methodist on the road in the next two weeks.

Creighton topped Western 2-1 in overtime, and SMU took a 1-0 win. Creighton is No. 12 this week and SMU has climbed to No. 4.

Western played some of its best games of the season in those losses, but then lost by multiple goals to some of the conference’s lesser opponents.

“We lost a lot of one-goal games,” DeGaris said. “But we have a lot to build on.”

Holmes said that he needs to view this season from a distance to see all of the positives.

“I’ve got to take a long-range look,” he said. “Every loss is painful, but looking back, I think it was an important year for us.”

Western will return its entire defense next year. Goalkeeper Daryl Sattler and sweeper Ron Plute will be back for their senior seasons.

“Daryl has proven already that he is one of the top players in the league,” Holmes said. “I’d be very disappointed if he doesn’t make the MVC All-Conference team this year.”

Freshman defender Clay McMillan agreed that having Sattler in goal is a big advantage for the Toppers.

“Daryl had a great season, and he will be even better next year,” McMillan said.

The offense, and the Hilltoppers in general, will suffer two sufficient blows to its lineup.

They will lose their two leading scorers from this season.

Senior captain Ben Buerger finished his eligibility this season and will be moving on.

“Ben was a terrific leader on the team this year,” Holmes said. “He came in fired up and ready this year, and he was our best player on the field.”

The other loss will be freshman forward Jason Dugas. He has decided to transfer after this semester.

As this team looks to next year, the Toppers feel confident.

“We have higher expectations,” DeGaris said. “Our defense will be better after a year of experience. Our defense will be more confident, and we will know who our opponents are.

“We’re still a pretty young team and pretty much everybody played a lot. Basically, we’re stacked. I mean we are really stacked.”

Reach Danny Schoenbaechler at [email protected]