North Central Men’s Soccer soars ever higher

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North Central Men’s Soccer looks to improve on their best

Coming off their best season in program history, the North Central men’s soccer team was not at all complacent heading into their 2022 campaign. For them, this year was all about going above and beyond the new heights of last year.

“Last year with the 18 wins, won the first conference tournament ever, made the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever,” said head coach Enzo Fuschino recounting the 2021 season. “So, you know, you want to repeat what you did last year. Good. And you want to improve on a few things. Or one of the things was, you know, winning a conference, regular season tournament, which we hadn’t done in about thirty years almost, and then make it past the first round of the NCAA tournament.”

Almost the entirety of the roster returned, with the team having had no senior starters last season. That continuity has allowed the team to build and grow without interruption both on and off the field as they push each other to strive for greater success.

“I think the attitude this team is really good,” said junior goalkeeper Sid Marquardt. “Like everybody works hard. And I think that’s the key to everything is everybody’s determined to work, especially with a large roster that we have. Everybody’s competitive fighting for spots. Either that be on the reserve squad or the first team. That’s really the base of it and I think it correlates to our success.”

New faces from near and far

Supplementing that experienced roster was an impressive incoming class, as four freshmen would go on to make at least 10 starts and 20 total appearances. Before long, they were on the same page with their teammates despite having known them only days and weeks rather than months and years.

“Well, one of the special traits of this group is that they’re very welcoming,” Fuschino said. “There’s no jealousies. I mean, everybody competes. Everybody pushes each other for spots, but they all compete and they all respect, you know, what the roles are on the team. Daniel Navarro, I’ve known him for a while. He’s got a very strong soccer IQ and again, I’ve seen him for a long time, so I knew what he could do. The other three, the Italians did not see them. I just saw it on film. But, you know, being Italian myself, I’m very familiar with the level they played at in Italy. So I knew they played at a pretty high level over there. So I knew that they would come in and once they get adjusted, here is a little more direct, a little more physical, a little faster once they get used to it, that they’re very good players and they’re making an impact.

“So I had the option to go to different schools, but once I talked with the coach, once I informed myself about the school, the academic level, the project on the soccer side of it, I thought it was a good match and indeed it was,” said freshman forward Matteo Innocenti, one of the Italian imports. “I feel immediately comfortable. The team helped me a lot. All the freshmen were welcomed immediately and so I’m so happy to be here.”

“Oh yeah, I do have a little bit more of an extra eye on them,” said Marquardt of the freshmen, particularly defenders Navarro and Edoardo Bonifacio. “I mean, I had all-American Johnny Kramer on the other side of me that, you know, I didn’t have to worry too much because he’s a veteran. But with those guys, I do tend to have an extra eye. But I also let them get comfortable in their space to know what the college game is like. Because when I played last year was my first season, I got a rude awakening a few times and I was like, okay, this is this is college soccer. And that’s something I don’t want to take away from them and like shield them from. They got to experience it firsthand. And I think they’ve done a really great job this year.”

So I think it’s mainly because of the team that helped us and gave us confidence, even if we are freshmen and even the coach who also immediately give us confidence, even if we are the youngest players,” said Innocenti. “And I think that once you play one or two matches, then you don’t feel any pressure and you just feel comfortable on the field.”

Innocenti was one of four Italian freshmen on this year’s team, as he, Bonifacio and Jacopo De Collibus all played major roles. The fact that they weren’t adjusting to a new country and new way of playing alone certainly eased their transition into both college and the team.

“Of course it helped so much because especially in the soccer side, we have difficult moments in the beginning because American soccer so different from European soccer,” Innocenti said of the adjustment process. “So we had to adapt. And of course, talking with each other about it, giving giving each other some advice, we went through it quicker, I guess, and much better. But it’s kind of amusing because it’s much more transitional. You know, things are less tactical, less defensive. So it gives you the opportunity to have more space, to be more creative. And for my style of play is quite enjoyable, to be honest.”

An undefeated regular season

On the field, the Cardinals picked up where they left off last year and kept climbing. They went undefeated in the regular season, amassing a record of 14 wins and four draws to win the CCIW regular season title for the first time since 1994. For their efforts to make such a season possible, Bonifacio, De Collibus, Innocenti, Marquardt and Aidan Westerberg were all named to the CCIW First Team, while Jack Fairwood, Daniel Navarro and Eloy Nyibizi made the second team. Additionally, Westerberg was named CCIW Player of the Year, and Marquardt Defensive Player of the Year.

“They played for each other so much,” said Fuschino. “They were dedicated to each other so much. And I could see that in practice. I could see that, you know, on a daily basis, You know, when you do that, you know, the good things will happen.”

“Honestly, it’s a collective effort,” Marquardt said. “I can’t do without the ten guys in front of me out there on the field, including the guys on the sidelines. I really think of myself as just a piece of the whole. Nothing, Nothing more, nothing less. Because it is a team sport, it’s 11 guys against another 11. But I mean, it comes with responsibilities, there’s a lot of pressure, you can’t mess up and there’s times that that happens. But you just gotta to persevere through that.”

“Of course I’m happy about it,” said Innocenti, who was also named CCIW Newcomer of the Year. “But I think it’s a matter of hard work being paid off because I think this year maybe it’s me, but I’m sure that next year is going to be other guys because everybody is working so hard and everybody deserves what we achieved. And even more so, of course, I’m happy about it and it’s just a good reason to continue the hard work.”

Postseason drama and an unforgettable game

After making it a conference double with wins over Carthage and North Park to capture their second straight CCIW Tournament crown, the Cardinals returned to the NCAA Division III Men’s Soccer Championship by hosting the University of Wisconsin-Superior. After the Yellowjackets canceled out Westerberg’s opening goal, they looked to have won the game in the 86th minute. But somehow, the Cardinals turned it around: two goals in the  89th minute, first by Jaziel Enriquez and then by, of all people, the freshman defender Navarro gave the Cardinals a victory no one who saw it will ever forget.

“I’ve been coaching for 20 plus years, I thought I’d seen it all,” said Fuschino with a laugh. “But that was a first and I don’t think I can describe what I felt and those last 2 minutes, it was just incredible, you know? So words cannot describe how I felt, you know, seeing Navarro putting that third goal in with a minute left in the game and two goals and in less than a minute. And, you know, I didn’t know Danny [Navarro] was that fast until that goal. And when you ran 18 [yard box] to 18, sprinted 18 to 18 because he just wanted it so bad. But it tells you a lot about this group. You know, this group is relentless. The resiliency of this group. It’s fantastic. They never quit that. They just kept going. They kept believing.”

“I was confident that we would get more chances,” said Marquardt. “Just being able to take those was the question. And honestly, when Jazi scored, it was unbelievable to me. I didn’t have the chance to go and celebrate with them down in the corners. I was just like wowed and I was like, wow OK we actually have a chance here. Maybe take them to overtime. But, you know, that kind of all changed with obviously a few seconds later with our big freshman center back making the way. And that is probably the single greatest game that I’ve been a part of my entire life.”

MI: I mean, I always had the feeling that we are a team that never dies. So when we conceded the second goal, I’m not going to say that I was confident to win, but I was confident that we could get a goal and to take it to overtime. But when I saw Navarro sprinting in the last minute I was like, We have to score this one and we did.

“Yeah, that was a crazy game,” said Westerberg. “When they went up I, I never lost like faith. I still believe like we still we’re going to get one more chance, we’d have one more opportunity and we got that goal from Jazi and that was very important. And then the last one I think I’ve watched it probably like 100 times, just the fact that our center back, our freshman center back, last minute of the game against the goalie was that was crazy.”

Aidan Westerberg makes Cardinals history

The first goal of that game was the cherry on top of a remarkable season for Westerberg, in which he became the first All American in North Central men’s soccer history.

“Yeah, I mean, it means a lot,” he said. “It’s a good award to get for recognition for my hard work during the season, in the off season. And I couldn’t have done it without my teammates. And also this year I think we had a better roster. So players around me definitely helped me achieve my full potential and just play better. They’d feed me the ball and just allow me to play better.”

“I remember when I recruited Aidan and I was at a D1 school ID camp and I saw this guy blond, curly hair, and it was just kicking butt out there,” recalled Fuschino. “And I asked the the home coach if they were interested in him. And he said we were, but we’re not anymore. I said, ‘Well, I am.’ So I got his number, called him, and it was one of my fastest commitments that I had that year.”

“When you look at the goals it gets in your head,” Fuschino continued. “And I knew that once he got that goal, first goal, he was going to have that happen. Once he scored the first goal, you know, the the floodgates opened and he starts scoring and some big goals as well, and very important goals. So I’m not surprised at all. He also knows that it’s a whole team effort. It’s not just him. So, you know, in my heart, you know, we got one all-American, but in my heart we got 11 All-Americans.”

A disappointing end, but optimism for continued excellence

After giving their all to win their first NCAA tournament game ever, the Cardinals were bested the following night in overtime by St. Olaf College. It wasn’t the way they hoped the year would end, but they have kept the perspective that they accomplished what they set out to do. Next year the goal will be the same as it was this season: go higher.

“I think we’ve showed this year and last year that we’re capable of playing against many of the top teams and that we should be considered one of the top programs in D3 Soccer,” Westerberg said. “I think next year my goal is just to go further in the NCAA tournament and I think we showed that we’re capable of that.”

“Yeah, I recently just said that we have set a standard here now and I’m really proud of being the start of that,” said Marquardt, who this year set a new program record for career shutouts (19). “And I think it’s something that the younger players, especially the freshmen, understand now being in one season, and I will carry that on to the next generation that comes through it’s a standard to win the conference championship. It’s a standard to get to the NCAA and to make a run there.”

“We don’t wanna be the Cinderella anymore,” said Fuschino. “We want to be a regular, you know, team that that that every year fights for conference championships and and makes the NCAA tournament and definitely one goal for next year is to you know make it further in the NCAA tournament, Sweet 16 at least. But now it’s the more difficult task starts because now you’ve got to stay on the national stage, right? So we cannot just sit back and and, you know, rely on the reputation that we’ve got, you know, so now it’s going to be tougher because more people are going to be targeting us. You know, we got a bigger target on our back…. You know, we have a saying in Italian is that, you know when you’re on top you might get a headache and and so this has been an issue that we don’t get that and we’re used to it.

“We succeeded on our goals this year of going past the first game,” said Marquardt. “Now let’s get past the second game and so forth. Those just keeping those standards and making sure that we’re known as a powerhouse here in D3 soccer.”