PELLA—With as many newcomers as returning players following a bountiful recruiting year, the Central College men’s soccer team is positioned to accelerate its recent ascent.
Coach Garry Laidlaw did a program reboot followed a disappointing 4-13 campaign in 2015 that left the Dutch mired in seventh place in what was then the Iowa Conference. But Central has racked up 30 wins in the past three seasons and reached last year’s American Rivers tournament semifinals.
With 20 returning players, including 10 letterwinners, enlivened by the arrival of 20 freshmen, some highly regarded, the Dutch have proven performance as well as promise as they eye a loftier finish.
“We feel we can improve on last year,” Laidlaw said. “We got to the semifinals last year. We don’t feel that we’re that far away.”
Central got a beneficial head start during an extended spring training season. The Dutch traveled to England March 10-18 and played three matches while also getting 10 additional practices prior to the trip before launching into their traditional spring work. That gave Laidlaw an extra long look at returning players eying starting spots.
“We had a much bigger sample,” he said. “It was a great opportunity for those guys.”
Yet Laidlaw understands the challenge of incorporating the hefty influx of talent from one of the largest classes in program history with the returning veterans.
“We’re excited to get these guys in and start the process of teaching them how to become college soccer players,” he said. “There will need to be a lot of mentorship and leadership we’ll be relying on from the returning players and I’m confident that the way they represent themselves and our team, that we will be able to achieve that.”
Six starters return from last year’s 9-9 squad but there were some significant graduation losses, notably second-team all-region forward Miguel Pina, the program’s only ever 3x Team MVP. Pina scored a team-high seven goals, including a pair of game-winners, and added four assists. He was also selected as the program’s first ever Scholar All American by the United Soccer Coaches.
“We could take on a slightly different look this year,” Laidlaw said.
That look may well include some freshmen, as there are no guaranteed positions.
“We believe our players work for what they get here,” Laidlaw said.
There will be a new starter in goal but it may well be a familiar one. Andrew Mathys (senior, Elburn, Ill., Kaneland HS) got thrust into the lineup late last year when starter Sal Salado-Herrera went down with injury. He came up big, gaining league defensive player of the week honors and later received the team’s Most Improved Player Award.
“Andrew showed that he had been working hard and was ready when given the opportunity,” Laidlaw said. “He helped us advance in the first round of the conference tournament. For him to jump in and do that speaks to the preparation that he put in.”
Mathys will be challenged by a few newcomers.
Bringing stability in the back are a pair of returning senior starters, first-team all-conference defender Taylor Petkovich (Bow Mar, Colo., Heritage HS) and fellow back Landon Daniels (senior, Webster City). They’re serving as team co-captains.
“To have that steadiness in the back, I think, can serve us pretty well this year,” Laidlaw said. “Taylor’s a multi-purpose, versatile player who could play every position on the field for us.
“Landon is more of a leader by example. He is, perhaps, less vocal than Taylor and yet also commands respect through the entire team. He’s going to show up on game days. He’s a steadying influence in there.”
They each scored one goal. Petkovich was a league defensive player of the week honoree.
The Dutch have a third returning starter in Brant Mueller (sophomore, Davenport, Bettendorf HS), although he missed some time during the season due to injury.
“He could really solidify that group,” Laidlaw said. “He’s athletic and he’s competitive.”
On the outside, Laidlaw will also look at Joel Collett (junior, Walford, Prairie HS) and Mitch Laihinen (sophomore, Lakeville, Minn., Rosemount HS) along with Evan Kratochvil (senior, Firestone, Colo., Niwot HS) in the middle and some promising freshmen.
This year’s freshman class extends a run of recruiting success by the coaching staff, and two of last year’s freshmen return in the midfield as starters in Jake Dzarnowski (sophomore, Wheaton, Ill., North HS) and Zach Worster (sophomore, St. Peters, Mo., St. Dominic HS).
“We had a really good freshman class last year, with a lot of players who contributed, few more than Jake Dzarnowski,” Laidlaw said. “Jake’s a high-level technical and tactical player with the physical attributes to match. He can be an anchor for us in the midfield.”
Worster was Central’s second-leading point producer with two goals and two assists.
“Zach can play all the positions in the midfield,” Laidlaw said. “He’s another versatile guy who contributed with a few goals and assists. He played significant minutes and continues to be on a trajectory where he can be a big factor for us.”
Central has a pair of additional veterans with Michael Anderson (senior, Farmington, Minn., Rosemount HS) and Ben Turnley (senior, Manhattan, Kan.). Both are three-time letterwinners.
“They are guys who came in when we started a rebuild and played some valuable minutes as freshmen,” Laidlaw said. “They have slowly and steadily learned and improved on playing the game at this level by taking those opportunities and making the most of them. That’s really going to pay off. The team’s culture, mentality and expectations have all risen in that time and they’ve been major contributors in that effort.”
Laidlaw liked the progress he saw in Joey Parker (sophomore, Davenport, Bettendorf HS).
“It took Joey some time to transition to the college game,” Laidlaw said. “He pressed a little bit too hard as a freshman at times and when it didn’t fall for him early on, he got a little frustrated. I thought he really turned that around in the spring.”
Another sophomore, Richard Sanchez (Lincoln, Neb.), will contend for a spot.
“He can play as the attacking midfield and he can play up front on the wing,” Laidlaw said. “I think with improved fitness, he could make some inroads this year.”
Freshman options are here as well.
Identifying a replacement for Pina as the heart of the Dutch offense at forward is a priority, Laidlaw said. Then again, maybe not.
“One of the bright spots last year was we actually spread out the scoring pretty well,” Laidlaw said. “We had a lot of different players score goals and get assists. We did a pretty good job of taking the pressure off of Miguel. We may need to figure out who that new go-to guy is, or we maybe won’t need one because we’ve got a number of guys that can make a difference in the game.”
The latter is perhaps more likely, with multiple players sharing the load, while getting contributions from freshmen.
“It may be by committee and I think that would be ok for us,” Laidlaw said. “I really think we’ve got a lot of production across the board with this team.”
Laidlaw will first turn to his veterans, starting with Ian Meentemeyer (senior, Hartsburg, Mo., Southern Boone HS), a three-time letterwinner and returning starter who burst onto the scene with eight goals and three assists as a freshman in 2016, but followed that with three goals in 2017 and just one last fall.
“Ian comes in as our most experienced forward,” Laidlaw said. “Ian had a strong spring season for us and I think he can lead the line well.”
Three sophomores, Tony Cervelli (sophomore, Plainfield, Ill., South HS), Nathan Casas (sophomore, Cottage Grove, Minn., East Ridge HS) and Tristin Gilles (sophomore, Waterloo, Hudson HS), all lettered as rookies.
“They all played significant minutes,” Laidlaw said.
Cervelli had two goals.
“Tony played more as the target striker,” Laidlaw said. “He’s effective at holding the ball up, using his body and bringing other players into the game.”
Casas had a goal and two assists.
“Nathan is a very skillful, technical, creative player who can play through the middle or on the wing,” Laidlaw said. “He’s got great 1v1 attacking skills. We think he has more goals in him this year. The one area he had to improve the most coming into the year was his defending and we thought he made some good strides in that area in the spring.”
Gilles had two goals and one assist.
“Tristin can be a difference-maker,” Laidlaw said. “He came off the bench last year and scored two big goals in conference play. For a freshman to make a difference in such important situations says a lot about his quality.”
Senior Dillon Maass (Appleton, Wis., Freedom HS) is also in the mix.
“He’s been a reserve for his first three years yet he’s one of our inspirational leaders,” Laidlaw said. “He’s always willing to say his piece in the huddles. He does a great job of keeping the mood light in training when it needs to be and yet, when it’s time to be serious, he can set that tone as well. It may be hard to measure his importance to the team this year in stats, yet we value all he brings. He likes to play a high-intensity, high-pressure game that can affect matches. He’s also one of the best mentors we have for the younger guys from an academic standpoint.”
Two juniors were absent during spring drills but will also contend for time. Andrew Benhart (junior, Geneseo, Ill.) is a two-time letterwinner who saw action as a defender. He was in Europe through Central’s international study program in the spring while Jacob Sinohui (junior, Chandler, Ariz., College Prep HS) was competing for the Dutch track and field team.
“Without them having the benefit of working both seasons, they may be coming from a slightly different starting point,” Laidlaw said. “Yet both have the talent, ability and work ethic to push the other forwards.”
Laidlaw likes the Dutch schedule, which will be demanding.
“It’s really well-balanced,” he said. “I think we play teams from every league in the North Region. We’ve tried to spread out the regional opponents so we can see how we measure up. At the same time, we believe our own league stacks up very well in its own right.”
Loras College claimed the regular-season conference title but Luther College was the league tourney champ.
“Loras and Luther have clearly set the bar high over the last number of years,” Laidlaw said. “Yet I continue to see the whole league on an upward trajectory. Everybody’s getting better and it makes us get better.”
“We were one game away from playing for a chance to get into the national tournament (last year),” Laidlaw said. “Sometimes that can seem like it’s a mile away but in reality, we’re right there. We will strive to put ourselves be back in that position again.”
“We certainly feel like the progress we’ve made over the last three years with this group will go a long way toward that goal. At the same time, the difference between many of the team’s in this league is often a penalty kick, a goal post, a cross bar or a corner kick. That’s how competitive it is. In conference play, those inches and moments can make the difference.”
The roster depth reflects the progress of the program and the large freshman class should give it another nudge forward.
“We may not be reliant on freshmen but when you put them with the returning players, I think our level of play is we can take an even bigger step this year,” Laidlaw said. “Not to mention the competition for playing time will be greater than it’s been in some time, in a healthy way at all positions. I don’t feel like there’s one area or position where you would say we have huge voids, and that’s important. We learned that last year when we lost two center backs and the starting goalie for the last three games. Our depth was important and it was tested. We need to be ready for that scenario again.”
The to-do list for Laidlaw is a long one before the Dutch are ready for opening day, particularly with so many freshmen. But he’s eager for the challenge.
“Needless to say, we’re excited about the season,” he said.
Perry Bell can be reached at email@example.com or by calling the Knoxville newsroom at 641-842-2155.