In its appearance in the NCAA tournament this year, the men’s soccer team won its first two games, but was defeated by Wake Forest in the third round of the tournament.
This was only the second time the Cougars have been able to make their way into the tournament since the reclassification from Division II to Division I in 2008. The other time was in 2014, when the Cougars lost to University of California Berkeley in the second round.
Being able to make it back into the tournament was an important and meaningful experience for the players and coaches.
“For me as a coach, [going to the NCAA tournament] was why I came to this school. The history of SIUE soccer is one of the best in the nation, and it was something I wanted to be a part of to try to get this program back to the national stage, so it meant a lot to me,” Head Coach Mario Sanchez said.
From the beginning of the season, the players were focused on starting a legacy for SIUE’s soccer program and the school. Junior Forward Devyn Jambga said the program has been incredibly successful in the past, and he and his fellow teammates want to make sure the team is known as one of the top teams in the country again from this point forward.
In the tournament, the Cougars defeated Butler University and Michigan State University in the first two rounds of the tournament after both games went past two overtimes and into penalty kicks.
“Playing the teams we did, we’re literally playing against some of the top teams in the country, so I thought it actually brought the best of us out, which I think is exciting for the players and coaches,” Sanchez said.
When heading into big games against high-caliber teams like these, intimidation is definitely something that could factor into the game. However, the Cougars proved to be anything but intimidated.
“The players were very confident, relaxed, but tuned in. The guys were in a very good state of mind,” Sanchez said.
Part of the team’s positive state of mind may be in part due to their focus heading into the tournament. Sanchez said they were focusing much more on themselves rather than the teams they were playing. Specifically, one of the team’s main goals was trying to be in control of the ball for a longer duration of the game.
“Possession is critical in those games, and I knew when the team was under pressure, I’d have to retain possession in the attacking third of the field. Also, our team was working on becoming fluid in multiple formations and just touching up on a little bit of everything else,” Jambga said.
At the beginning of the season, the Cougars may have never even been considered a candidate for the national championship. After the first seven games, their record was 1-4-2, making it seem unlikely that a good season was ahead.
But after their fourth loss, the team turned it around. They went unbeaten for their next 14 games, and their final conference record at the end of the regular season was 8-4-5. Junior Goalkeeper Kyle Dal Santo believed that this comeback was made possible thanks to the team’s determination.
“From where we started this year, it’s incredible how we came together and fought for each other. We could’ve rolled over and let the season pass us by after the slow start, but we didn’t. And that shows how committed the team was for working for each other,” Dal Santo said.
According to Sanchez, the Cougars will be working on playing the game at a higher tempo on both defense and offense for next season. He also said he wants to make sure to continue to recruit top talent that can help the team make it even further than they did this year.
“This year was great, and we’re proud of our accomplishments, but we aren’t satisfied. We can squeeze even more out of this group for next year,” Jambga said.
Sanchez said he said he hopes the success of the program can bring heightened awareness on campus. He said successful seasons like these can bring positive attention to the student body, which he wishes to keep up in the future.
“Now more than anything, I think it puts a good pressure on us that each season that we not only want to get to this point but exceed what we’ve done this year. I took this job because I expect us to compete at this level every single year,” Sanchez said.