The football team moved to 6-1 today with an ugly win over Minnesota and is generating a little buzz as a contender to win the Legends division and earn a trip to the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis despite the loss to Penn State last weekend. Still, the Northwestern team with the most realistic shot to bring the Big Ten trophy back to Evanston is the program that brought home a couple pieces of hardware last season.
The defending double Big Ten champion Northwestern men's soccer team is currently sitting at 8-2-2 with a 2-0 record in Big Ten play with a chance to move to 3-0 and regain a share of first place with co-favorite Indiana when they welcome the 0-3 (in conference) Ohio State Buckeyes to Lakeside Field at noon (CT) tomorrow. The game will be broadcast live on the Big Ten Network.
The Wildcats fell out of the top 25 rankings with consecutive out of conference losses to in-state foes DePaul and Bradley. However, the team got back on the right track with a huge victory over no. 7 Notre Dame last Tuesday while they had a bye in conference play. The stumbles, though, raised the question of whether the squad has what it takes to repeat as Big Ten champions. Do they have the ingredients to get it done?
In my preview column for BTN.com, I outlined what I think are the four key factors to winning a Big Ten title based on quantitative and qualitative analysis of the past five years of Big Ten soccer. Let's see if NU checks the boxes of those four categories: goalkeeping, defense, role players and a goal scorer.
Starting between the pipes, sophomore goalkeeper Tyler Miller is arguably the best goalkeeper in the Big Ten and maybe one of the best in the country. He was the first team All-Big Ten keeper a season ago and has continued to show the ability to put on the superman cape and single-handily keep the team in a game. With a goalkeeper like Miller, there are no soft goals against and that is imperative to winning a championship in a conference where four of the past five winners had an All-Big Ten goalie.
In front of Miller, the defense has given up a few more chances than Coach Lenahan would like, but is still a very disciplined, organized unit that has kept the goals against average below the key number of one at .95. Senior captain centerback Jarrett Baughman is the consumate leader who will put his body on the line for his team. Baughman has also been very impressive starting the attack from the back picking the right moments to take a few touches and find the passing lanes into targets up front. His centerback partner, sophomore Nikko Boxall has the talent and ferocity to strike fear into opposing strikers to create a good pairing.
Lenahan has to be pleased with the way his role players have stepped up this year. Former walk-on and starting right back, Grant Wilson is counted on to be a solid defender, but has gone above and beyond expectations leading the team (and second in the Big Ten) with six assists getting forward and sending in dangerous free kicks. Freshman ginger Henry Herrill doesn't quite have the cult following of Brian Scalabrine yet, but he has quietly become the ultimate utility player for the ‘Cats where he has been plugged in as a starter in two games once as a midfielder and once as a defender when an injury and a suspension respectively opened up a spot. Quality depth is important and the team didn't miss a beat with Herrill, who has contributed a goal and two assists, in the line-up.
The big question heading into the season was if the team would be able to produce goals consistently up top. Freshman Joey Calistri has been thrust into the spotlight leading the team with five goals as the starting forward in the ‘Cats 4-5-1 system. Questions remain whether he can score against Big Ten defenses as strength along with experience obviously is an issue, but it was a relief to see him tally against a top 10 Notre Dame team after being scoreless in his previous five games. Calistri may not be the most technically proficient player, but his effort will never be questioned. If Calistri can put up solid, if not spectacular production and star midfielders Chris Ritter (4G, 4 A), Kyle Schickel (3 G) and an emerging, now healthy Lepe Seetane (1 G) can continue to play at a high level Northwestern should be in good shape to contend.
On paper, the ‘Cats seemingly have all the ingredients to repeat as champions in what appears to be a two team race with Indiana. The twelfth-ranked Hoosiers (9-2-2, 3-0) are overall the most talented team in the conference with players who were blue chip recruits littered throughout the line-up and boast Big Ten leading goal scorer, Eriq Zavaleta, who has 12 goals in 13 matches. The Wildcats can't look ahead though to their match up with Indiana in the final conference game as they must first take care of business starting with the Buckeyes Sunday to keep pace with the idle Hoosiers.