Becca Langys/ Photo Editor
Western Illinois Men’s soccer enters the tournament as the surprise favorite. Taking the No. 1 seed away from nationally ranked Oral Roberts last week shocked The Summit League as Western stole their fifth Summit League title in program history. Now, Western will look to hold off three other teams for a chance to enter the NCAA tournament.
It starts with Omaha. Western will travel to Denver University to take on the Mavericks in the first game of the tournament. Omaha secured a win over the Leathernecks in the regular season 3-1. The Mavericks were at home for that contest and got the better of an inexperienced Western team at the start of Summit League play. If Omaha believes this gives them an advantage, they should reconsider.
The amount of turmoil this team has gone through in the past two years has been astounding. Head coach Eric Johnson brought in 11 newcomers two years ago. This year, 15. Those numbers are astounding, considering that you only start 11 players. Coach Johnson has continued Western’s tradition of tough and battled back after going 0-11. They won four of their Summit League matchups including ranked Oral Roberts to become a co-Summit League champion.
This was the goal for the team from the beginning. After a poor start, the players knew the chemistry would come eventually. It takes time, and coach Johnson continued to work his team. After a dramatic win against Denver University 4-3, it became possible. The team continued playing well together and stacked wins against Purdue Fort Wayne and Eastern Illinois to cap off a four-game winning streak.
A season full of failures and successes, and it all ends in a three-day contest in Denver. The Mavericks secured the last seed in the playoffs with a 2-2-1 conference record. Their last four games have resulted in two ties and losses to Oral Roberts and Denver.
The last time the Leathernecks took on the Mavericks in the tournament was in 2017. With the Mavericks as the No. 3 seed taking on Western as the No. 2 seed, they won 2-0. That win projected them to beat Denver on penalty kicks to become The Summit League tournament champions. They lost in the opening round of the NCAA tournament to Florida International.
The Leathernecks should ignore all the stats and history of this matchup. The last time Western won a game in The Summit League Tournament was 2014. They beat Oral Roberts in the first round only to be upended by the Denver Pioneers in the final. The same exact result of the 2013 Summit League Tournament. The last time Western came out on top was in 2012 with wins over UMKC and Oakland, two teams no longer in The Summit League.
It will be just the second opportunity for a few Leatherneck seniors to make their mark in the history books. Players like Paul Kirdorf; after playing for Western for five years, he still has not hoisted a trophy over his head. The dominant left back for the Leathernecks has been a leader both on and off the field. He has two goals and two assists on the season and is looking to end his collegiate career with a bang.
If the team wins their first game, they will take on the winner of Oral Roberts vs. Denver University Saturday night.