Using their heads (Men’s Soccer Midseason Report)

Brian Sumers

For 23 seasons, the Northwestern soccer team lived on handouts, raising money throughout the year to keep the program afloat.

Michael Kunnert, the team’s coach for 19 of those seasons, did the best he could with his squads. But he never put together a solid soccer program. With so many schools cutting their men’s soccer teams because of funding restrictions, Kunnert had to live with what the school gave him.

There were some successes, including a 14-win season in 1988. But many of the players’ biggest accomplishments occurred off the field.

“We produced a ton of doctors and lawyers and CEOs in those 20 years,” said NU’s current coach, Tim Lenahan.

In 2000 Lenahan inherited a smart team, but one that hadn’t won a single game the season before, compiling a 0-17-1 record. Upon Lenahan’s arrival, NU’s athletic department decided to increase the school’s financial commitment to the program, giving the Wildcats a chance to win more games.

Since he’s not required to raise money to support the program, Lenahan has been able to focus on more important things such as building NU’s soccer tradition.

In his third year at the helm, Lenahan has made the Cats a competitive force in the Big Ten. NU still hasn’t won a conference game since the 1999 season, but both the Cats and some of their opponents say that streak will soon come to an end.

“I spoke with quite a few coaches prior to the season and we really felt that this would be the year Northwestern gets a strong Big Ten win,” Michigan coach Steve Burns said. “It’s really only a matter of time.”

With five regular-season games remaining, NU (5-4-4, 0-2-1 Big Ten) has a chance to finish above .500 for the first time since that memorable 1988 season.

“There is no reason we can’t win out the rest of our games,” sophomore Adam Sirois said.

While the Cats have yet to break through against a conference opponent, they’ve already beaten two of the top soccer programs in the country. And after each of those wins, other coaches have called Lenahan to congratulate him on his turnaround of NU soccer.

On the road earlier in the season, the Cats knocked off Drake (7-2-3) with a 2-1 victory. The Bulldogs haven’t lost since that game, compiling a 2-0-2 record.

And just 11 days ago, the Cats traveled to Durham, N.C. where they beat Duke. The Blue Devils have one of the most recognized soccer teams in the country, having made 17 appearances in the NCAA tournament.

“That’s probably the most significant win in the history of Northwestern soccer,” Lenahan said.

Lenahan couldn’t be at that game because he was in Pennsylvania tending to the death of his mother. The players dedicated that win to their coach.

“Knowing the team played for me, for my mom and for my family — it’s a special day I’ll never forget,” Lenahan said.

Lenahan missed three games, but the team continued its strong play. The Cats won two of three games under assistant coach Erik Ronning.

“Reports back to me were that Erik was pacing the sidelines and tussling his hair,” Lenahan said. “It’s good to see he was putting himself fully into it.”

Throughout the season, the team has bonded together. The team’s 11 sophomores, who barely knew each other in fall of 2002, have had a chance to connect both on and off the field.

Sirois lives with teammates Jaro Pylypczak, Eric Brin and Brad Napper in an off-campus apartment. According to Sirois, that living arrangement deserves at least some of the success for NU’s success this season.

“It definitely helps, in terms of getting up and going to practice,” he said. “It’s just another part of the chemistry.