Season was full of painful learning experiences for young team; 8 high schoolers have committed for 2002

Amalie Benjamin

And it all started so well.

The Northwestern men’s soccer team began the season with two ties in its first four matches after only garnering one tie — and no wins — in the entire 2000 season.

But the Wildcats (1-12-3, 0-6 Big Ten) didn’t follow up on that promising start, losing their next nine games before tying Northern Illinois on Oct. 28.

That tie — and a subsequent poor showing against Wisconsin — might have been a turning point, even though it came late in the Cats’ season.

After the loss to Wisconsin, NU bounced back with an impressive game against No. 11 Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

And then came the big moment.

In a game that almost didn’t happen, a game that was originally slated for Sept. 12, the Cats broke a 35-match winless streak.

First-year head coach Tim Lenahan rescheduled that match against Valparaiso for Nov. 11, the last day of the Big Ten tournament. Only if the Cats lost in the first round of the tournament would they have even faced the Crusaders at all.

The 1-0 road win over Valparaiso came almost two years to the day after NU’s last victory, which came over Wisconsin in the first round of the Big Ten tournament on Nov. 12, 1999.

“One of the things we set a goal to do was to never give up,” Lenahan said. “We left this season on a positive note. Unless Indiana or Penn State wins the national championship, we’ll have the longest winning streak in the Big Ten in the fall.”

But even with Lenahan’s positive thinking, the Cats suffered through some ugly defeats in the middle of the season.

The team was shut out in seven of 10 matches from early September to mid-October, including a 4-0 loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee and 3-0 drubbings by Penn State, Indiana and Marquette.

But it wasn’t as if the Cats weren’t scoring.

They were. In their own net.

NU managed four own goals in the early season. In a loss to Western Michigan, the team’s own goal turned what could have been a 1-1 tie into a 2-1 loss.

As the season progressed, the Cats learned to accept their skill level, coach Tim Lenahan said.

“You have to know who you are,” Lenahan said. “We knew who we were and embraced it rather than complain about it.”

The team did improve defensively, giving up 19 fewer goals than it had in the 2000 season.

“I definitely think that it was a tough season to swallow,” senior captain Dan Doman said. “Obviously, losing a lot of games is never fun, but there are some positives.”

There may be some hope for the future of the program, with the season-ending win and Lenahan’s new recruiting class.

So far, Lenahan has eight verbal commitments for 2002, players that he said could be impact performers.

Playing alongside those eight will be a more experienced NU squad.

The Cats’ 12 freshmen will have a year of collegiate soccer under their belts, and the upperclassmen will have spent a season under Lenahan’s system.

And instead of just two seniors, the Cats will have four leading the 2002 team.

That should improve a team whose members constantly talked about a lack of leadership.

“The bar has been set higher than it had been in the past,” Lenahan said. “They needed to evolve from only thinking about themselves to thinking about what they can do to help the team be successful.”

Doman said the feeling among the team at the end of this season was very different from the feeling at the end of last season.

“After 2000, we didn’t really know what direction the team was heading in,” Doman said. “There was a lot of uncertainty.”

But with Lenahan at the helm, success is in the future of the program, Doman said.

“I think coach Lenahan will at least die trying,” he said. “Who knows where we would have been without a new coach to lead from the top, like a Division I team should be?”