Men’s Soccer: Wildcats prove worthy of NCAA Tournament bid in first-round victory over Western Illinois


Meghan White/Daily Senior Staffer

Midfielders Nick Gendron and Cole Missimo celebrate after Northwestern’s victory over Western Illinois on Thursday. The Wildcats outshot the Leathernecks 19-7, but Gendron scored the game’s only goal.

Ava Wallace, Online Sports Editor

Northwestern played by what coach Tim Lenahan calls “the old adage”: Survive and advance.

A first-round NCAA Tournament game that can be described by long bouts of Wildcats possession, nine different NU shot-takers and 19 shots from the Cats, came down to senior midfielder Nick Gendron’s second half goal.

NU (12-5-4) came out firing against Western Illinois (7-9-5) Thursday night at Lakeside Field. The Cats took 11 quality shots before halftime and at the break, Lenahan said the team was getting anxious.

“We talked a little bit at halftime about having a little bit more sense of urgency to score a goal,” Lenahan said. “And Nick came through and tucked it off the post, and one was enough tonight. I give credit for Western Illinois — they worked hard, they fought hard and they made it such that it was a one-play game. And we made the play.”

But the Cats’ 1-0 victory over the Leathernecks is misleading.

Western Illinois was barely able to set up offensive plays throughout the game and tallied only 7 shots, all of which were in the second half. The Leathernecks had only 1 shot on goal and forced NU sophomore goalkeeper Tyler Miller to make only 1 save for the game.

Perhaps anomalously, NU’s potent defensive line was not the biggest story of the night.

Freshman forward Joey Calistri led the team with 5 shots and senior midfielder Kyle Schickel placed just behind Calistri in the category with 4 shots for the contest.

From the beginning of the game, NU’s veteran offensive players in particular — this is the Cats’ senior classes’ third Tournament appearance — set a tone of calm control. Junior midfielder Lepe Seetane struck first with a header from inside the Leatherneck’s box just two minutes into the contest. 

After that, NU did what they’ve been struggling to do for during the last stretch of their regular season and overwhelmed the Leathernecks’ defense to make quick, smart offensive decisions.

“We were just trying to make plays,” Lenahan said. “We got one goal for 19 shots — that’s not going to set any records for offensive efficiency — but we got the goal and that’s really all that matters.”

Still, the Leathernecks improved during the second half and played aggressive defense.

Though Lenahan said NU was not forced to make any adjustments, Western Illinois’ risk-taking, which included a too-close-for-comfort bicycle kick from the Leathernecks’ leading scorer Nathan Bruinsma with eight seconds left in the game, had Lenahan nervous on the sideline.

“The team we played had a lot of fight to them,” Lenahan said. ” They had a lot of competitiveness to them, they weren’t going to ever give up. It doesn’t matter … if you have the ball 75-80 percent of the time, because they’re one play from tying the game up.”

Gendron, Ritter, Schickel and senior defender Jarrett Baughman played notably larger roles in this victory than they have in the team’s past few games.

Especially because the messy Michigan loss could have been the senior class’s Lakeside sendoff, both Gendron and Ritter were pleased to leave their home field with a victory.

“This time of the year coach always says that ‘As the seniors go, so goes the team,’ so, it’s up to us,” Gendron said. “We know what it’s like, we’ve been here, it’s a long grind, it’s been a long season and you need your older guys — your veterans. It’s our job to step up and make plays for this team.”

The seniors will play at least one more game, as the Cats now move to a second-round match up against seventh-seed Marquette in Milwaukee on Sunday evening.

Lenahan said he leaves this first-round game, the team’s seventh-ever Tournament appearance in program history, with a good feeling.

“We played great,” Lenahan said. “I would have liked to have a couple more goals, but there’s a lot of things I would like in life. We’ll take an NCAA Tournament win every day of the week.”