Men’s Soccer: After receiving last Tournament bid, Wildcats look to regain top form against Western Illinois

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Daily file photo by Meghan White

Northwestern forward Joey Calistri and the Wildcats enter the NCAA Tournament coming off a tough 3-0 loss to Michigan. NU was the last name called during Tournament selection, but the team says it has found new life heading into the first round.

Ava Wallace, Online Sports Editor

After losing to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament on Friday, Northwestern had to wait until the very end of Monday night’s NCAA Tournament selection show to hear its name called.

On Thursday, the Wildcats will make their seventh appearance in the NCAA Tournament and their second in as many years.

After getting a tournament bid despite a rocky second-half of the season, both sophomore goalkeeper Tyler Miller and freshman forward Joey Calistri said the Cats felt first relief, then excitement at getting a second chance to make a statement at the end of the season.

Coach Tim Lenahan summarized his players’ mentality in one phrase.

“Now it’s tournament time,” Lenahan said. “It’s do or die.”

NU’s (11-5-4) first-round match up is against Western Illinois (7-8-5). The Thursday night match will definitely challenge the Cats’ mentality, perhaps almost as much as it will the team’s skill on the field. The Cats tend to struggle with midweek contests. Three of the team’s five losses – to DePaul, Bradley and Northern Illinois – have come on Wednesday games.

A strong mentality will keep the Cats alive. Western Illinois has gone the last six matches without a loss and took home its second Summit League Championship in a row Sunday. 

“They’re going to be a very formative group – they’re very together, flying high and feeling a buzz off of their success,” Lenahan said. “Matching their energy and matching the enthusiasm that they have right now – that’s a key ­– and in the first 15 minutes really establishing ourselves as the team that I know we are.”

This is NU’s six graduating seniors’ second time kicking off the tournament at home. The Cats are 7-6-1 in Tournament play and 5-1-1 when hosting.

Despite NU’s up-and-down end-of-season stretch – the team’s past six games include three losses, two ties and only one win –  in general, Lenahan and Miller said the team is not worried too much about the technical aspect of its game. The Cats will not be making many tactical changes before playing Western Illinois.

Still, Calistri said the Leathernecks’ work ethic is similar to the Cats’, and Miller said his defense will have to pay special attention to a few choice players, specifically the Leathernecks’ Nathan Bruinsma.

Bruinsma leads Western Illinois in goals with 8 for the season and was named the Summit League Tournament MVP on Sunday.

“(Against Michigan) it wasn’t really the technical errors, it was putting the right amount of effort in,” Miller said. “We’re going to be cautious about what kind of players they have, and we’re just going to play our game.”

The Cats have not played the Leathernecks since 2009, a match NU won 3-2. The two teams do not play each other often in the regular season, though Lenahan said the teams face off more frequently in the spring.

Western Illinois has had a few notable victories this season – an early-season win against DePaul and two more recent ties with Wisconsin and Bradley.

Thursday night is the Cats’ seniors’ third trip to the NCAA Tournament, though the team has relied on some of their younger players of late. 

Calistri has been an offensive staple all season, but Lenahan  has also played the speedy freshman midfielder Cole Missimo and freshman defender Henry Herrill more recently.

But Calistri said tournament newcomer or not, every NU player knows his role on the team, and it is performing well in those specific roles that allowed the team to come together and persevere through this season’s rough patches.

So now, after getting the last Tournament bid, Calistri has his mind on redemption.

“It’s amazing to look at that selection show and not know whether you’re going to be in and then go into the last bracket thinking that we’re out,” Calistri said. “And then seeing our name pop up, it gave us second life. We’re ready to take advantage of it.”

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