BY CHRIS MACKOWIAK
The penalty kick. It is one of the most suspenseful moments in all of sports.
One person standing at a spot where one score or one miss can define a season or a legacy.
As miniscule as some of the moments at the spot were for the Salisbury men’s soccer team in 2017, the final moments were some of the most impactful. Success at the spot changed the tide in many matches including the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) first round.
After drawing 1-1 following 90 minutes and two overtime periods, the fifth-seeded Sea Gulls went to penalty kicks vs. the fourth-seeded York (Pa.) Spartans. Following 10 grueling rounds at York, SU prevailed 8-7 on a save from SU junior goalkeeper Trevor Brookhart.
That penalty kick victory got Salisbury to the conference semifinals for the first time under second-season Head Coach Alex Hargrove. It was a season of firsts for the program now under Hargrove: his first conference playoff appearance and first playoff victory.
While it is not the conference titles the program is used to seeing like in 2015, it is progress in the right direction for a program that Hargrove is still making his own and still learning from.
After failing to make the CAC playoffs in 2016, the program could only build up and so they did, bringing in 16 new faces from the crowd.
The youth that marked the 2017 squad as inexperienced, might be an advantage in 2018. Despite losing a very strong senior class at the end of this season, a core is there to improve on in the future.
Hargrove learning, adapting
Taking over with a senior-heavy class, 2016 was a rough start for Hargrove in his first season, missing out on the conference playoffs. Little consistency aided the former SU midfielder.
Due to the large departure of seniors, the head coach had some flexibility headed into his second season in which he revamped over half the squad with an influx of youth.
2017 displayed a similar start to his first season, losing five of their first six matches for an early 1-5 record. However, four of those losses were 1-0, showing a steady defense with lacking offense.
A good sign of a coach is one that is not stubborn, but instead adapts to a given situation in order to succeed.
That is exactly what Hargrove did.
Following their 3-2 overtime loss at Washington College, Salisbury switched their formation to a back-three from their previous back-four. Utilizing an experienced defensive unit, this worked wonders by adding an additional man to the offensive front.
SU then bridged a four-game win streak into conference-play after that, not allowing more than a goal in any match for the rest of the season. The defense became the backbone for a sometimes struggling offense throughout the season.
With Salisbury becoming a streaky team in 2017, SU finished conference play with their best stretch of the season, going 3-0-2 which propelled them into the fifth-seed of the conference tournament.
It is a good lesson that staying stubborn and hoping for the best is not the best solution. Sometimes a coach must take the risk and make the change in order to reap the benefits.
Defense wins championships
The key to the formation change part way through the season was the seasoned depth on defense. With multiple names returning from the 2016 squad, the defensive unit was certainly going to be a focal point of the team.
In the later back-three, senior backs Mike Kramer and Nick Carrington were looked to as the central leaders. The two were the only SU players named to All-CAC honors at the end of the season, both as second teamers.
One big surprise was the scoring prowess of Carrington over his career. While it was from the penalty spot, Carrington became the go to man for penalty kicks during his two starting seasons in the maroon and gold. He never missed a penalty kick in his SU career and paved the way for many key results down the line.
While fans knew what they were getting out of Kramer and Carrington, the answers out of the other members of the defense are what made the unit successful.
Sophomore defender Alex Eiben was one that improved greatly. Eiben got the opportunity to move into the right center back role of the new back-three and excelled at it.
He quickly became a regular in the starting 11 and showcased his recognized recovery speed on multiple occasions. Eiben also displayed his aerial ability with a goal in overtime vs. Catholic during the season.
In front of the back three, there were two holding midfielders typically. 2016 center back Colby Fell moved into that role in the new formation.
Fell found success in the area higher up in the midfield. However, now after two strong years at SU, he will be gone come 2018.
Potential players to lock up those defensive midfield spots could be freshman midfielder Beau Johnson or junior midfielder Robbie Budd. Both players ended up seeing extensive time at the positions.
Johnson emerged later in the season into a starting role, impressing Hargrove as a likeness to himself in his midfield playing days.
Overall, SU’s defense kept the team in games during many close matches. The unit has been a strength over the program’s history and continues to be. Headed into 2018, it will be an interesting topic to see who steps up to the task with known commodities Eiben, Johnson and Budd returning, and do not forget about their goalkeeper too.
And then there was one
From the start of the season, one of the big question marks facing Hargrove and his staff was the starting goalkeeper position.
After Drew Staedeli took control of the position for a few years previously, and then Robert Fiackos and Dan Brennan started both as seniors in 2016, the position was wide open in 2017.
The positional competition started in camp with three players in the fold: sophomore Sam Roy, freshman Ben Gentry and finally junior college transfer Trevor Brookhart.
In the end it was Brookhart who stood out to the coaching staff, starting in the first day. Little was known about the junior goalkeeper before then, other than a one-year crossover with Fell at their respective junior college.
However, Brookhart would not let up that starting job.
The Eldersburg, Md. native cemented his role behind his veteran defenders, working five shutouts and nine matches of five or more saves. His 0.96 GAA and 79.6 save percentage were among the best in the conference, ending in player of the week awards.
As the season went on, an early question mark turned into a later advantage. That advantage and game experience may work wonders down the road into next season.
With multiple departures on the defensive line, Brookhart will be one of the surer things entering the 2018 campaign. He may be relied on for big plays and leadership next season even more than he was this time around.
In a 2016 season that had more lows than highs, fans learned of a strong group coming to play for Hargrove in his first season at the helm.
Last season midfielders Dolph Hegewisch, Ryan Spadin and Matt Hawkins came on to the field to make an immediate impact. Hegewisch gained the most starts among the three at 10, eventually also getting All-CAC Second Team honors.
This time around all three players appeared in all 20 matches alongside combining for 46 total starts here in 2017. Spadin had the most points among the three with nine from three goals and three assists. The three attacking midfielders combined for seven goals.
Spadin was the one that saw the most dramatic shift in playing ability. The new formation suited is playing style as he was able to have a free-flowing motion moving from the deep midfield up the striker line.
Hawkins developed into a strong option at the wing on the outside offering speed, while Hegewisch continued to distribute the ball and create chances as he had in 2016.
In essence, this group of three represents progress in the Hargrove regime. With senior forward Brooks Zentgraf gone in 2018, they will represent the true barometer of the offense moving forward.
Just as sophomores, each player as notched numerous starts and points for their team. It is valuable experience for players that will be an integral part in getting the team’s goals-per-game average closer to two next season.
Overall, with the many new faces that Hargrove brought in to start 2017, this team will be generally young again come next season. However, there is a big difference between young and then young with experience. Down the line over the next two years, SU may be a deceptive roster.
With such an influx of youth, the team has gone through growing pains these two seasons, but things may finally pan out come next season. Despite a 3-0 loss to CNU in the CAC Semifinals to end the season, the team was streaking and streaking well to end the regular season.
That bodes well for confidence in 2018. So when 2018 rolls around, do not be fooled by youth that this team fosters. It may be the key to success for the next two seasons.