Defending B1G Champion NU Men's Soccer Spring Preview

I know most of the excitement in Evanston this Spring is surrounding former blue chip recruit and USC transfer, Kyle Prater joining the Wildcats for spring ball, the women's lacrosse team gunning for their seventh national championship in eight years and of course the men's basketball team FINALLY garnering a bid to the Big Dance, but I wanted to take a look at the defending double (regular season & tourney) B1G champion men's soccer team in their spring season.

Well apparently, that whole basketball NCAA tourney thing didn't actually happen and despite rumors that the State Farm College Basketball Three Point Champions' school would receive an automatic bid into the Final Four, the 'Cats and John Shurna's wet shooting were not invited to the party in New Orleans. State Farm was in good hands with Shurna on Thursday, although the sponsor probably should have been Allstate instead since it appeared Shurna was shooting into a net the size of the Allstate field goal nets, but I digress.

Anyways, the men's soccer team is a team to check out this spring as they prep to defend their Big Ten Championships next fall. The team is in the midst of a spring season that saw them travel to national power, Wake Forest for their first game and grab a very respectable 0-0 tie after driving 13 hours to Winston-Salem borrowing 80's funk/R&B group Zapp's tour bus for the trip...#actually. The 'Cats have a slate of 7 games remaining this spring highlighted by the Chicago Cup at Lakeside Field where Northwestern hosts a tournament to watch with the very competitive in-state rivalry with the likes of UIC, DePaul and Loyola coming to town on Saturday April 21st.

The Wildcats boast nine returning starters and have legitimate All-Big Ten caliber talent at every position on the field in addition to another highly touted recruiting class of six players coming in next fall where head coach Tim Lenahan has proven to mix big time recruits with hidden gems into the line-up seamlessly. Northwestern soccer has come a long way from being winless in 2000 to appearing in six NCAA tournaments including two trips to the Elite Eight since Lenahan was hired in 2001. The Wildcats once again were invited to the NCAA tournament last season but were ousted in the first round by defending national champion Akron.

On the defensive side of the ball, Lenahan will have to replace Peter O'Neill, the 2011 captain and emotional leader at right back, who was instrumental in the Wildcats late season surge to go unbeaten in the Big Ten and win the title. Two freshman all-americans will be back in goalkeeper Tyler Miller and centerback Nikko Boxall. Miller was a revelation in goal for the Wildcats last year with his 6' 4" frame and impecable shot-blocking ability, picking up nine shut-outs and being named 1st Team All-Big Ten. Miller was invited to the Under-20 United States Men's national camp earlier this year. Boxall picked up 2nd Team All-Big Ten honors using his speed and strength to thwart opponents. Boxall's athleticism was a change from the traditional NU centerback who have generally not been fleet of foot (I played centerback for NU in the 2007-2010 seasons and my 40 time was more representative of an offensive lineman). At left back, another freshman Grant Wilson, unexpectadly grabbed the starting job midway through the season and was a very solid contributor. The leader of the back line will be rising senior centerback Jarrett Baughman who Lenahan describes as a "warrior". Baughman was a key player starting all 21 games last season after missing the second half of the 2010 season after suffering a concussion in a Big Ten match vs. Ohio State. Baughman will be counted on to provide the veteran leadership for this group.

In the midfield, all five starters return for a group with a surplus of talent. Fan favorite, Lepe Seetane of Lesotho, Africa, standing at 5' 2" had a break out sophomore campaign in 2011 garnering 2nd Team All-Big Ten recognition. The dimunitive center midfielder had five goals and three assists showing why he was a three-time All-American in high school and one of the top recruits in the country two years ago. Next to Seetane, junior center midfielder Chris Ritter also was a 2nd Team All-Big Ten pick. Ritter is the primary playmaker for the Wildcats and also scored four goals last season including the game winner to capture the Big Ten regular season title. Ritter, along with Baughman, will be a leader of the team as a senior. Starting outside midfielders Kyle Schickel and Nick Gendron will also be seniors next season. Shickel is one of the most technical players in the Big Ten and a true two-footed player. Gendron has a knack for making the big play with both of his goals coming in game-winning fashion along with notching the penalty kick to win in the Big Ten semi-final vs. powerhouse, Indiana. Rising junior Connor Holloway, known simply as "The Don", for his outsized personality off the field was a calming presence on the field while starting 17 of 19 games after starting two games as a freshman. Another rising junior, Layth Masri showed the incredible depth in the midfield as the 2010 Freshman All-Big Ten selection came off the bench in the final seven games of the season after returning from an injury. Masri will be expected to play a large role next season with his playmaking whether he is the first man off the bench or in the starting 11.

At forward is where the Wildcats have their biggest void to fill. Oliver Kupe leaves Northwestern with 22 career goals and 11 assists. Kupe, a unanimous 1st Team All-Big Ten selection, scored game-winning goal after game-winning goal. Kupe was the face of the Wildcats and one of the Faces of the Big Ten and a pretty good dunker as well. In order for NU to succeed next season, Lenahan will have to find a way to replace Kupe who was selected by Real Salt Lake in the second round of the Major League Soccer Supplemental Draft. Rising junior Reed Losee will be the one counted on most heavily to pick up some of the scoring load. Losee, a left-footed striker, has five goals and eight assists for his career. A freshman or two may need to step in as well like Piero Bellizzi and Matt Eliason in 2007. Will the team be able to generate enough chances and replace all of those goals and big plays? That is the big question heading into next season.

The Wildcats men's soccer team should be one of the most interesting Northwestern teams to watch this spring as we see if they can carry over their success from last season with a target on their back as the defending B1G champs. Here is the full spring schedule to catch the 'Cats in action.

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