Ohio Wesleyan looks to defend national title
Members of the Ohio Wesleyan University men's soccer team realize winning last season's NCAA Division III championship means opponents will be more motivated to beat them this fall.
"We have a bigger target on our back this year, but Ohio Wesleyan has been very good in soccer," said junior midfielder Ian O'Keefe, a 2010 Worthington Kilbourne High School graduate. "We've worked even harder and pushed ourselves even more (in the offseason). It's going to be harder (to repeat), but we can make a really good run again."
The Battling Bishops open Aug. 31 against Christopher Newport in Newport News, Va.
Last year, after losing its opener 2-1 to Messiah, OWU won 23 of its next 24 games. The Bishops defeated Calvin 2-1 in the national final Dec. 3 in San Antonio.
Defending their title is the ultimate goal.
"Our expectations are pretty much the same every year," said junior midfielder Matt Shadoan, a 2010 Dublin Scioto graduate. "We want to win every home game, the (North Coast Athletic Conference) and the conference tournament. If we do all the little things, the big things will take care of themselves."
Shadoan said he was a little surprised last fall when then-senior forward and team captain Travis Wall didn't list winning the national title as one of the preseason goals.
"At the beginning of the season, Travis said, 'I think at times we put too much pressure on ourselves,'" Shadoan said. "That's one of the reasons why he didn't want to have that as a goal. And look what happened."
Wall, who graduated from OWU earlier this year and Upper Arlington in 2008, is one of seven players the Bishops have to replace. Wall, the Division III Player of the Year who led OWU with 19 goals and 15 assists last season, is playing for the Minnesota Stars FC of the North American Soccer League.
Other top scorers lost to graduation were Tyler Bryant (14 goals, 2 assists), Dylan Stone (9, 5) and Matt Bonfini (6, 7).
"I'm the leading returning scorer," Shadoan said. "And I only had six goals last season."
While the Bishops will be looking for players to step up on offense, there is a good chance some or all of them will have ties to central Ohio.
Of the 42 players listed on last season's roster, 16 played for central Ohio high schools. Fourteen of those players are expected to return, including O'Keefe and Shadoan.
Coach Jay Martin, the 2011 Division III Coach of the Year, said having a team of predominantly central Ohio players was nearly unthinkable when he started coaching at OWU.
"When I first arrived here 35 years ago, we didn't have a single Ohio kid on the team," he said. "They were all from the East Coast."
Martin began to change his recruiting focus in the 1990s. He said 1998, when the Bishops won their other national title, was the first time OWU had more Ohioans on its roster than players from outside the state.
"As soon as the Ohio kids, with their football-tough mentality, started to pick up the game of soccer, I knew they'd produce very good players," said Martin, the all-time leader in victories among college men's soccer coaches with 608. "Coaches tend to look at the Cleveland area or the Cincinnati/Dayton area for players. Central Ohio is a gold mine. We've done very, very well with central Ohio kids."
In 2010, eight local players committed to play for the Bishops. Almost instantly, a bond developed.
"When we were all looking at colleges, we all talked it over and decided to come here," O'Keefe said. "We've created a very good chemistry."
"We have become like a big family; they're all like my best friends," said junior midfielder Jon Stegner, a 2010 Olentangy Liberty graduate. "We want to be there for our friends and not let anyone down."
Forward Colton Bloecher, a 2011 Olentangy Orange graduate, said the number of central Ohio recruits was a "big factor" in his decision to commit to OWU.
"I knew a lot of the guys and was friends with most of them," he said. "Everyone respected each other. That was a big plus for us."
That chemistry helped the Bishops go 11-1 last season in games decided by one goal. In its five-game NCAA tournament run, OWU won four one-goal games. A 4-0 victory over Montclair State in a national semifinal Dec. 2 in San Antonio was the exception.
Against Calvin in the national final, Wall and Paolo Bucci, a junior midfielder and 2010 Watterson graduate, scored first-half goals to give the Bishops a 2-0 lead.
After the clock expired, as the Bishops were celebrating the win, O'Keefe remembers thinking about the team's central Ohio contingent.
"We've all been playing with or against each other for so long," he said. "Coming together and winning a championship like that was a cool experience."