Men’s Soccer: Co-conference winning Wildcats host Big Ten Tournament, face Ohio State

Daily file photo by Meghan White

Northwestern forward Joey Calistri will lead the Wildcats’ counter-attack, one of the keys to success for the team during the Big Ten Tournament. Northwestern’s first game is against Ohio State on Wednesday evening.

Ava Wallace, Online Sports Editor

The Northwestern Under Armour “Protect This House” banner strung along the fence of Lakeside Field will take on a new meaning for the Wildcats on Wednesday night.

The rest of the Big Ten comes to Evanston this week, when second-seeded NU (10-4-4, 3-1-2) and its six conference-mates vie for a championship title. The Cats are not only playing to protect their home turf, but also to defend their 2011 Big Ten Championship title.

The first round of the tournament will be played Wednesday. The winning teams will then face off in a semifinal round Friday, and the championship game is slated for Sunday afternoon.

But at the risk of being called a bad host – and despite having a championship trophy in mind – NU is solely focused on beating seventh-seeded Ohio State (6-9-3, 0-4-2).

“This year we’re going to have to win three games in order to (win the tournament),” coach Tim Lenahan said. “But in order to win three games, you have to win one game.”

The Cats defeated the Buckeyes 1-0 during the regular season thanks to a lofty shot-turned-surprise-goal from sophomore midfielder Eric Weberman.

The regular season matchup  followed NU’s triumph against then-No. 7 Notre Dame, and the Cats were riding a high that helped them play an assertive first half.

After Thursday’s tie with No. 22 Indiana, senior midfielder Kyle Schickel said the team enters Wednesday’s game with confidence once again. Schickel also said keeping the team’s mentality in check was one of the team captains’ main tasks during the final games of the season when the Cats were struggling.

“We had a couple of setbacks despite playing well, but getting the result at Indiana really did wonders for us mentally,” Schickel said. “It’s a tough place to go into and get a result, and that was good for us.”

Ohio State should also head into the first round match with a confidence boost. The Buckeyes’ last three games reflect well on the team. They tied against conference rivals in Wisconsin and Big Ten leader Penn State and narrowly lost to No. 2 Akron.

Because of the Buckeyes’ impressive end to the season, junior defender Layth Masri said the Cats are not overlooking their first-round opponent, despite their last-place standing in the tournament. This year, Ohio State tallied only 6 victories instead of its usual 10 to 12.

“I don’t think their record shows what kind of team they are,” Masri said. “They have a lot of seniors who will be fighting because it might be their last game – they’re going to give us everything they have.”

Lenahan echoed Masri’s statement and said Ohio State’s six seniors may add an element of surprise in an attempt to extend their season.

“They have a lot of seniors,” he said. “And when seniors play in that last game, sometimes you see something a little bit different.”

Nevertheless, Lenahan said his team will not be making any major changes before the tournament and is just going to “do what (they) do.”

For Masri, this means keeping up the defense that is largely responsible for NU’s success this season.

“The main thing is that all 11 guys on the field are committed to defending,” Masri said. “Defense wins championships, and if we can execute defensively and also execute on the counter – score some goals – I think we’ll be successful.”

The Cats can also count on their home field to give visiting opponents trouble. As junior midfielder Lepe Seetane said after a stormy Notre Dame game Oct. 9, “nobody likes coming out here.”

Lenahan said the wind should be relatively calm for Wednesday’s game, though Sunday may be more troublesome. And windy days or not, Lenahan and his players are zeroed in for the week.

“It’s only the wind that’s an issue,” Lenahan said. “Sunday it’s supposed to be a bit windier, but if we’re still playing on Sunday, I’m not going to worry too much about the wind.”

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