Albion Men’s Head Soccer Coach Wytse Molenaar remembers the Oct. 8 Trine away game as a big moment for his team. The Britons were down 1-0 against the Thunder and were 4-3 in conference play. Trine had put pressure on the Brits, Molenaar said, but they did not back down. With grit, the Britons turned the momentum around and scored a game-winning goal with three minutes left.
Molenaar thinks that tough win against Trine helped in other close games and last minute situations, like a 1-0 win at Hope and a 1-0 win at Kalamazoo in double-overtime to clinch a conference playoff spot.
“Regardless of the fact that it wasn’t necessarily with clear-cut chances, we kept kind of going at it and believing in the fact that we could score a goal,” said Molenaar. “Those are big moments, I think, for a program that had been kind of on the wrong end of things for a while.”
Last season, the men’s soccer team finished last in the MIAA with a 3-11 conference record and a 5-13-1 record overall. Their biggest streak was a series of six losses.
This season, their 50th, the team secured their first-ever conference tournament appearance with a fourth place finish and a 8-6 record. Their overall record this season was 9-9, and they limited their losing streak to three games. The tournament, which takes the top four teams, has been in existence since 2011.
Although the Britons took a 7-1 loss at Calvin during the first round of the tournament, the team was able to become a threat in a highly competitive conference. Calvin, finishing first for the season, was 13-1 in the MIAA followed by Alma at 9-4-1 and Adrian at 9-5.
Soccer captain and Novi, Michigan, senior Mark Breaugh saw a midseason game against top-ranked Calvin as a turning point, despite a 1-0 loss.
“We had never beat them in my four years, but it was the first time where we saw we outplayed them,” said Breaugh.
The close loss made Breaugh realize they were a great team that other teams could be afraid of and had something special. They had to run with it.
With a series of tough wins and a first-ever appearance in the conference tournament, growth seemed to be a recurring theme to Molenaar. Molenaar and Assistant Coach Jonathon Stanley finished their first season at Albion. Previously, Molenaar coached the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh men’s teams to two conference championships and three berths in the NCAA Division III tournament. Stanley played for Oshkosh under Molenaar.
From the time he arrived in spring of 2016 to the end of the fall season, Molenaar witnessed team culture strengthen. As a whole, the Britons set out standards of work ethic and commitment for their program to reach. They were met, according to Molenaar.
Molenaar recalled third-year student and first-year player Aaron Smit of Hamilton, Michigan, as an embodiment of the team’s work ethic and relentlessness. Approaching Molenaar earlier in the spring about playing for the team, Smit went on to score the game-winning goal at Kalamazoo with minutes to go in double-overtime, clinching a spot in the conference tournament.
“He typified what the team maybe stood for — a new and fresh beginning,” said Molenaar.
Smit said he was happy to have the opportunity to play soccer again, although he felt like he did not play as well this season as he did two years ago.
Despite being a new addition to the team, Smit, too, saw a change in the team dynamic.
“On day one, there was a change in the program,” said Smit. “I think the coach had a completely differently expectation of what the program was and what is should be and what it wasn’t.”
While next season’s goals are tough to visualize for a team losing nine seniors and going through the recruiting process, Molenaar has plans.
“The key part of for the young guys that are returning and we have talked about is having goals, period and working towards those in the offseason and being more committed to that,” said Molenaar.
Smit will personally miss the graduating seniors and believes the program will miss their mental toughness and experience. The rest of the team, Smit said, has the talent to repeat their accomplishments next fall, perhaps going farther. It will depend on whether people step up like the seniors did.
“I think we have the pieces, but it will be a new team just like every other year, so we’re going to have to figure out how they’re all going to fit together,” said Smit.
Although he is one those graduating, Breaugh realized this season how much the team meant to him and how much he liked the close-knit atmosphere that was created.
“We’ve seen what we can do,” said Breaugh. “We’ve seen the potential especially the younger guys have. In years coming, let’s lockup playoffs with two or three games to go. Let’s be a team that doesn’t go to the top and float. For the first time, we’re seeing that we can be a team that starts at the top all season and teams are afraid to play.”
Just earlier, as the team was dropping off their uniforms, some student-athletes were already talking about meeting up to practice and work out. That commitment, Molenaar believes, is a promising change the team will need to be successful in the upcoming season.
Photo by Beau Brockett Jr.