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Men’s soccer falls short of title in unexpected MWC tournament matchup

Contributed by Ted Schultz
Caleb Hoereth `24 dribbles the ball in a game against the University of Dubuque on Sept. 5. Grinnell lost 3-0.

When the final whistle blew on Friday, Nov. 3, it seemed as if the Grinnell men’s soccer team had done the unthinkable. After playing for 110 minutes with two overtime periods, they had defeated the number-one seeded Illinois College on their home turf. A second consecutive Midwest Conference (MWC) tournament finals appearance awaited them the next day. 

10 days earlier, on the night of Oct. 24, Brian Jaworski, head men’s soccer coach, returned home from practice differently. The usually optimistic and energetic coach now felt defeated and disappointed. “It was one of the worst days of my coaching life,” Jaworski said. He said he had just witnessed four starting players practice apathetically, one day before a must-win home game against Monmouth College. 

“I felt like they gave up on me,” he said. 

With the introduction of new assistant coach Darion Ferreira this year and the graduation of three critical players last year, there was bound to be an adjustment period, explained captain Caleb Hoereth `24. 

Oliver Northing `26 dribbles around Dubuque players during the Sept. 5 game. (Contributed by Ted Schultz)

Hoereth described the beginning of the season as a “rocky start,” but said that the team performed better as the season progressed. “When it comes to conference play, our guys really turned on the gears,” Hoereth said. Issues with starters and a difficult path to the playoffs placed the team’s progress in jeopardy. 

There were only two remaining games, both in the MWC, and it looked like the Pioneers, who sat in sixth place at the time in the conference, would not be going to the playoffs. The coveted fourth-place spot, which guarantees a playoff berth, was held by Beloit College, who had two more wins than the Pioneers. In fifth behind Beloit was Knox College, who had one more win and two fewer losses than Grinnell. 

For Grinnell to make the playoffs, the following had to happen — Grinnell wins both remaining games, Beloit loses their remaining game and Knox either loses or ties their final game. If Knox tied the game, Grinnell needed to win by a large margin in both games to ensure that the tiebreaker of goal difference went in the Pioneers’ favor. 

When the team walked out onto the field for the first must-win game against Monmouth, a day after the troubled practice, the lineup did not resemble anything previously used in the season. Four starters had been benched. The attack consisted of wingers Jaxon Willoughby `26 and Billy Cherres `26, who had previously only played left back for Grinnell. The center-forwards were Soma Suzuki `25, who had not started a match all season, and Samuel Gojjam `27. Gojjam, who played in every game this season, is one of five first-years who have been thrust into critical roles.

“We weren’t too sure if we were going to make the playoffs. But we decided as a team that we wanted to, regardless, finish out the season strong with two wins on our home turf,” said Hoereth. 

The new starting lineup met the team’s desire to improve immediately. Willoughby scored three minutes in, with Suzuki netting nine minutes later. Both goals were assisted by Cherres. The team cruised to a 6-1 victory over Monmouth, giving fuel to the small flame of hope that the Pioneers could make it to the playoffs. 

The season came down to the conference matches on Oct. 28. Four matches, each between two conference teams, kicked off at 1:30 p.m. The four starters who were benched in the previous game returned to the lineup after Jaworski said he felt satisfied with their commitment to the team. The lineup performed well — Grinnell led 5-0 late in the game against Lawrence University with a hat trick by Cherres. Grinnell had done everything they needed to do. What mattered now was how the two other teams competing for fourth place fared. Illinois College defeated Beloit 5-1, eliminating them from contention. 

The news was less good elsewhere — Knox led against Ripon College 1-0 at the halftime and looked to be in control of the game. Members of the women’s soccer team on the sidelines watched live streams of the Knox game, anxiously waiting for something to happen. With about three minutes left in the Grinnell game, whispers turned into murmurs and murmurs into shouts. It was clear that something had happened in the other game. 

Ripon scored with 6 minutes and 23 seconds remaining. The full-time whistle blew on Springer Field, but hardly any Pioneers seemed to care. After shaking hands with the opposition, every player either grabbed a phone and opened the live stream of the Knox game or huddled around someone else’s screen.

For two minutes that seemed like an hour, Grinnell players, fans and parents alike stood in the cold Iowan wind, waiting for the much-needed whistle. Once the clock hit the 10-second mark, Grinnell players assisted in counting down to 0. The sliver of hope had turned into reality, and the team was headed to the playoffs. 

The team was not finished with achieving the unexpected, however. Illinois College awaited the Pioneers on their own home field, with a few hundred fans in attendance. Both teams refused to budge in the hard-fought game. It was only after 101 minutes and 48 seconds that the improbable victory finally came true, thanks to a goal from Gojjam. Grinnell won the game 1-0, and moved on to the final. The next intense game was 0-0 at the half, with the fairytale coming to an end in the second half as Grinnell lost 2-0 to Lake Forest. 

Despite the loss, Jaworski had nothing but pride in his players. “We turned a complete negative, Oct. 24’s practice, into such a positive ending,” Jaworski said.

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About the Contributor
Henry Horn
Henry Horn, Staff Writer
Henry Horn is a second-year history major from Pasadena, California. He likes riding his bike, listening to songs that don't belong together, and watching soccer. He can easily be bribed with Hot Tamales or a bloody mary sandwich with no tomato but with jalapeños from Jay's Deli.
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    Gayle F BurrowNov 14, 2023 at 10:08 pm

    Hurray Henry Proud of you.