Sunday, December 8, 2013

’Twas A Season to Be Jolly

Laurie Bell, a junior on the 2013 Milwaukee men's soccer team, will once again be blogging all season long on the UWM website. Today is his 13th, and final, entry of the year.

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By now, our lockers have been tidied, our boots are gathering dust, and our preparations are for Christmas festivities, not upcoming games. The season is over. And what a season it was.

It’s always strange when the frantic events of the soccer calendar’s culmination suddenly cease. The constant matches, trainings and traveling simply stop. All that is left to do is reflect. In previous years, reflection has brought upon a certain bitterness and regret. Not this year.

Sure, we thought we deserved more from our final game, outshooting and outplaying our opponents in a 1-0 defeat. But there is no shame in losing to a talented Madison side in the NCAA tournament. We had made it to the big dance, and boogied til our feet hurt. We signed off 2013 with swagger – a year that will go down as a famous one in Milwaukee soccer history.

Making the national tournament was one of several goals that we successfully met this fall. It came as a consequence of the biggest: winning the Horizon League Championship.

The weekend we won was filled with as much drama and controversy as our great sport can muster. Thanks to tornados and disqualifications, delays and relocations, we were forced to play the semi-final and final on consecutive days. We handled every challenge like champions, and after a couple of 2-0 wins that’s exactly what we were. On the Sunday evening, we were crowned, in front of few fans and zero functioning cameras. What we had was each other, the team and staff who had operated together so fluently all fall. Each other, and a big old trophy. The gale force Chicago winds carried our glory chants away into the night air. “Campeones, Campeones, Olé, Olé, Olé”

Our other achievements, both collectively and individually were plentiful.

Playing attractive soccer virtually all fall, we finished with a 15-3-2 record, the most victories in a season for the program for a decade.

Four players earned all-tournament honors - MVP and two-time goalscorer Andrew Stone, Luke Goodnetter, Aaron Cranfill and myself.

These came on top of the four recipients of all-conference honors.

Freshmen Liam Anderson and Junior Juarez, as well as Rami Younes enjoyed outstanding beginnings to life in Milwaukee. Bright futures lie ahead for Beau Laufer and Kostas Kotselas too.

Declan Rodriguez, selfless and underappreciated all year, was fantastic throughout the campaign.

Robbie Boyd leaves after lifting the Horizon League trophy. His captaincy responsibilities are passed over to Luke Goodnetter and Richard Johnson, who I look forward to raising more silverware with in the future.

The competition for the number one goalkeeper position will heat up in 2014. Liam shall be pushed by Agustin Rey, John Stahr and freshly eligible, Ryan Onwukwe.

Next year, Kyle Neumann, Aaron Horvat, and Patrick Ruhland can build on their contributions so far at UWM. Zach Stevenson and Dustin Ashley will come back from redshirt seasons to improve us, too. Likewise the strong class of incoming guys will help fill the void left by the seniors.

We all wish one of those seniors, Andrew Stone, the very best of luck in his pursuit of a post-college soccer career. Hopefully he extends the program’s braggability into the New Year.

His fellow departing defenders, Cranfill and Austin Toth, walk through the exit door alongside dedicated four year servants Boyd, James Ashcroft, Luke Davey, Riley Weiner, and Kevin Ferron. The group can all graduate as champions, crying champagne tears.

I’ve won a few honors myself this year. Followers of Milwaukee soccer must be sick of hearing about me. In truth, though I am very proud of the accolades that have come my way, I’m sick of seeing my picture too. But every team member has the award I coveted most. The one that sits in pride of place on my dresser, like I’m sure it does in all our respective bedrooms. On the prestigious glass plaque are three words that cheer me up each morning when I awaken to a day without soccer. It reads: Horizon League Champion.

That’s us. Merry Christmas!

Over and out.

LB

Friday, November 15, 2013

Everything on the Line

Laurie Bell, a junior on the 2013 Milwaukee men's soccer team, will once again be blogging all season long on the UWM website. Today is his 12th entry of the year.

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It’s post-season. A time when every game is your biggest of the season, and any game could be your last. When your next blog may be a season-reflector or a look ahead to a new opponent. We kick off tonight in the Horizon League semi-final against a tough Oakland side who finished just one place behind us in conference. The prize for the winner: a place in Sunday’s final against UIC.

So, we are in Chicago, stationed in our hotel rooms, each player preparing themselves for tonight in their unique way. We have just returned from our habitual pre-game walk. On today’s wander, we lapped a Super-Target megastore beside the hotel. The journey took us behind a loading dock that smelled worse than Ryan Onwukwe’s dreadlocks after a month without being washed. Perhaps it was some kind of preparatory strategy. If we can make it through that, we’re ready for anything.

A week ago, we recorded our biggest victory of the season, a 5-0 thrashing of Cleveland State. Our defense was huge in ensuring the clean sheet, and five different players notched goals. Ashy, Goodnetter, and myself added to our season tallies, and two freshmen scored their first goals for Milwaukee. Beau finished nicely to wrap up the scoring, after Kostas Kotselas earned an overdue first goal in the final game of a regular season that he deserved more from. Rami Younes starred with two assists and an impressive performance on his return from injury. It was a great way for the seniors to bow out of Engelmann action, and a fantastic set up for this weekend’s tournament. It has given us confidence that we will carry into tonight.

Earlier this week, the Horizon League awards came out. Andrew Stone and I were awarded First Team All-Horizon League honors, and Luke Goodnetter and Robbie Boyd were named on the second team. I must thank my team for helping me earn the Horizon League Player of the Year Award, too. Our whole squad felt rightly aggrieved, after our remarkable season, that we didn’t get more recognition in these polls. But, while they are good achievements, this isn’t why any of us play the game. If our priorities were the pursuit of individual trophies, we would have taken up tennis or golf.

But we are all footballers, soccer players. We participate in the greatest team sport in the world for a reason. To play in a team. To win, draw and, sometimes, even lose together. To work collectively with 25 other guys towards the same goal. The goal this weekend: to win a Horizon League Championship in Chicago. It is what we have worked towards all season, and it starts tonight against Oakland. We can’t wait.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Engelmann Eight

Laurie Bell, a junior on the 2013 Milwaukee men's soccer team, will once again be blogging all season long on the UWM website. Today is his 11th entry of the year.

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Tonight we can secure the number two spot in the Horizon League and a place in the conference tournament semi-final. We can take our win tally to an impressive 13. It’s a big game and a big opportunity. It is also a chance to recognize the eight seniors who will be enjoying possibly their last-ever game at Engelmann Stadium.

Whether they have been here four years, two years or even six months, each player has contributed significantly to the program and will be missed next season.

Robbie Boyd, my fellow captain, has led us for the past two years. He has given us pace and quality down the righthand side and will be a tough act to follow for future wingers. It was at Robbie’s house that I spent my first week in Milwaukee. So, I thank him for helping me settle in, and also for all the penalties that he’s won!

Riley Weiner has battled through injury throughout his college career, but has still managed to contribute in every one of his seasons. Like a few of the other seniors, he’ll still be around UWM next year as he works towards his Masters. Hopefully, that’ll mean more days for us out on his boat.

Andrew Stone has only has one playing season for us, but he has made a significant impact. His defensive quality and athleticism have given us real strength at the back this year, and his size 12's will be big shoes to fill. We wish him luck with his future ambitions in the game.

James Ashcroft is the only senior not from the state. Although, the first day I met him I couldn’t detect a hint of his British accent and mistook him for a Wisconsinite. A former captain, he has shown leadership, quality and versatility in his years as a Panther, and the locker room will feel very different without his presence when he’s gone. Something tells me the wannabe-American won’t be too far away though.

I’m not sure what Kevin Ferron’s plans are after college, but I have a feeling he’ll do well for himself. On the field and off it, he has a knack of getting what he wants. He also has the coolest mode of transportation on the team. It won’t feel right when we leave practice next year without him zooming away on his retro moped.

Aaron Cranfill, like Stone, had to sit a year before playing his only season for us. But, as our record shows, it’s a season worth waiting for. Fortunately, his goofiness will still grace our locker room next year as he begins his role as graduate assistant. We just can’t shake this guy.

Austin Toth had to play for UWM. He has told me the story a couple of times how his parents met each other on Engelmann Field. His dad was a soccer player and his mother a dancer. She has now made her own mark on the program by baking delicious desserts all fall! A.To is embracing his short time here since arriving over summer after four years at DePaul. His unwavering smile even remains as I regularly beat him at ping-pong.

Luke Davey is a Panther. He always has been and always will be. He knew from an early age he was going to play here, and I believe his plan is to spend his old age watching more Milwaukeeans grace the Engelmann turf. I will miss my locker buddy and we all will miss our devoted teammate.

So, tonight we shall pay tribute to the Engelmann Eight. And before we deal with losing so many big characters and quality players next year, and before they tackle intimidating post-college lives, we will collectively try to help them sign off their careers with silverware and success.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Spooky Soccer

Laurie Bell, a junior on the 2013 Milwaukee men's soccer team, will once again be blogging all season long on the UWM website. Today is his 10th entry of the year.

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On Halloween-eve we took on Northern Illinois in the battle for the LeWang trophy. True to occasion, the setting was more fitting for a scary movie than a soccer game. The rain lashed down in a near-deserted stadium and just the odd spectator in dark, hooded clothing dotted the touchline. The game was ugly and not particularly eventful. The longer it remained scoreless the more the suspense built. Then, in the 74th minute, we carved open the NIU defense like a pumpkin.

Patrick Ruhland carried the ball down the right wing, ghosting past defenders and crossed to Kostas. He battled with their defender and set the ball invitingly to my right foot. I wielded my axe and the ball went spinning away like a decapitated head in a low budget horror film, landing in the back of the ghoul. I mean goal. Our opponents gave us some late frights, but our defense was monstrous, ensuring that none of our missed chances from set pieces came back to haunt us. We shook hands and hurried onto the bus before any bad befell us. The team and trophy arrived home safely.

Our next and last regular season match is on Saturday against Cleveland State, meaning a ten day space between games. This is both unusual and welcome. Our hectic schedule often only gives us two or three days rest for niggling injuries, which are common at this time of year, to be healed quickly or bandaged heavily.

Fortunately though, our squad is deep this year and anyone who comes off the bench, not only covers well but adds something to the team. This enables our coaches to rotate and rest players without harming our quality on the field. Recently, Beau Laufer, Kotselas, Riley Weiner and Patrick Ruhland have been particularly impressive when they have featured. Kyle Neumann, who has started the last two games, has held his own in midfield, contributing to a couple of wins.

The uninterrupted practice time is also providing opportunity for us to train hard. We are working tactically, technically and physically in preparation for the Cleveland State game and then the postseason competitions, which will define our fall. If we are victorious on Saturday, we will end the regular season with 13 wins. Regardless of what happens after that, we will have had a remarkable season. But we want it to be a truly memorable one for UWM men’s soccer. We have our sights set on the NCAA tournament, which would be a special experience for the players, coaches and the program.

We certainly believe in ourselves, and our record and performances this year give reason for others to do so too. But we are taking it one game at a time. We ask everybody to support us Saturday on Engelmann, and wish us luck on our travels beyond.

Happy belated Halloween!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Badger Culling

Laurie Bell, a junior on the 2013 Milwaukee men's soccer team, will once again be blogging all season long on the UWM website. Today is his ninth entry of the year.

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Tonight we face the Wisconsin Badgers in an exciting in-state match up. This fall’s fixtures between Wisconsin’s four big soccer playing universities – Milwaukee, Marquette, Green Bay and Madison – have seen action-packed games and mixed results. Anybody can beat anybody in rivalry games and this season has proved it. This evening’s Engelmann showdown features two teams having good seasons. The Badgers are 9-3-1. We are an impressive 10-2-1 and looking to add to our wins.

Those in attendance tonight might want to dress warm because, as my Wisconsinite readers will be aware, it has gotten cold here. Very cold. It felt like summer a fortnight ago, but yesterday was forecasted to see snow. Snow in October. Kiwi Liam Anderson says he has never seen snow before. Hopefully, that remains true for a little longer. I've heard people from this state repeatedly say how they love the Wisconsin fall. "Light jacket weather," coach Kelderman called it, with a smile. But that kind autumnal attire was good for about one beautiful week when golden leaves danced in the blustery wind and the air was cool and crisp.

Not anymore. In the last few days, I've been bundled up in long-johns, wooly hats and the warmest of several coats that I've acquired over my two years of Milwaukee thrift store shopping. Now, the trees are basically nude, and Zach and I are heading to Goodwill for more pre-owned layers.

If you can’t make the game, you can tune in at home to the Time Warner Cable SportsChannel. From your own home you’ll be able to see competitive soccer and close ups of our team’s edgy hairstyles, specially manicured for the TV cameras. Pay attention to Patrick Ruhland’s – I’m giving him a pre-game trim once I’m done writing.

We had no game this weekend so were given some time away from soccer to relax. During this time, Aaron Cranfill decided to brawl with a dog and ended up coming off worse. I’m no expert on dogs, so I couldn’t tell you what breed Luke Goodnetter’s pet is. All I know is it was tough enough to leave Cranfill with a gash on his nose and running to the hospital for a tetanus shot. Some good came of it, though. It has made Aaron’s babyface more menacing, giving it a don’t-mess-with-me look that all good centre backs should have. Stone mastered this a long time ago.

The free time was spent by Ruhland enjoying his 20th birthday. For some reason, he took this opportunity to record a video thanking his adoring fans for all their kind messages on his special day. It was a nice idea, but those who watched it were left more confused than touched afterwards. Why would a kid from rural Wisconsin talk like he was brought up in the ghetto, they ask? Couldn’t tell you.

But I will sign off the way he does in his video:

“Peace out. Live life to the fullest. Do big things. Peace."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Quality Time With the Family

Laurie Bell, a junior on the 2013 Milwaukee men's soccer team, will once again be blogging all season long on the UWM website. Today is his eighth entry of the year.

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After a three-game week, we sit in a good position in the Horizon League.

Last Saturday, we cruised to a 3-0 win against Wright State, with good goals from Robbie Boyd, Rami Younes and myself. The defense commanded their area, keeping a clean sheet and our keeper, Liam, even got himself an assist. The victory, on top of our fantastic previous form, earned us a ranking of 24th in the nation. This is a big step for the program and something we are all proud of.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t back up our ranking by retaining the Chancellor’s Cup. We suffered our first loss of the season against state rivals Green Bay on Tuesday. We outplayed and outshot our opponents, but fortune was not on our side.

We didn’t dwell on this though. As good teams do, we returned to winning ways quickly by beating Valparaiso in an ugly, hard-fought encounter. I don’t know if their campus has its own climate, but conditions always seem to be miserable when we play there. There were dark clouds and rain in the air throughout, making the turf wet and difficult to play on. The game was broadly unspectacular but Luke Goodnetter’s goal made up for it. And I think I had the best view of it in the stadium. The ball was cleared high into the air and Luke, about 30 yards out, told me to leave it for him. I stepped aside, presuming he’d control it and chip it back into the area for one of our strikers to contest.

No, no, no. Instead, he wound his supposedly weaker left foot back, held his position as the ball dropped then volleyed it sweetly into the top corner. So, so sweetly. He ran over to our incredulous bench wheeling his arm in celebration of the eventual game-winner. It was so good our media man, Chris Zills, is still campaigning for it to make the top ten plays on ESPN’s Sportscenter. If you haven’t seen it yet, go and watch it online. Now.

LINK TO VIDEO OF GOODNETTER'S GOAL

My Dad, Granddad and Uncle have now returned safely to England. In their week in Milwaukee, they got to see two wins, one loss and, to my Granddad’s disappointment, barely any cows. On one of our days off, I joined them on a one hour, 60-mile drive up the Lake Michigan coast to Sheboygan. By Englishmen’s standards this constituted a road trip. But even when covering the epic distance, we weren’t able to spot the farm animals that make Wisconsin famous.

“America’s dairyland they call it. I haven’t seen one bloody cow!” the oldest Bell repeated as we passed field after empty field. We tried to trick him and pointed to a herd of white and black of horses but even his 90-year-old eyes could tell the difference. We arrived in the pretty town and enjoyed the day paddle board surfing on the Lake and relaxing on the beach. Then, on our way home we spotted them. Huddled together, just peaking out of a barn were six unimpressive looking cows.

“They must be working bloody hard if it’s just the six of them in the state,” said my satisfied grandfather with a chuckle. The Bell’s aren’t farmers.

We’re now in conference crunch time and doing everything we can for success in our last 5 regular season games. We travel to UIC on Wednesday with a lot on the line. Wish us luck!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Real America and International Panthers

Laurie Bell, a junior on the 2013 Milwaukee men's soccer team, will once again be blogging all season long on the UWM website. Today is his seventh entry of the year.

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We started off the week with a victory over last year’s conference champs, Detroit. It wasn’t our finest defensive display but who cares when you have Aaron Horvat? We won the game 5-3 with Horvat netting four times. Yep, four! Deservedly, he has since been named national player of the week and conference player of the week. His performance was so good that I heard rumors he was being considered to be on the cover of the next GQ magazine – apparently it was just his terrible haircut that let him down. Maybe his well-defined calves will get him in Men’s Health instead.

We then traveled a total of about 20 hours on a bus with no DVD player to take on Nebraska-Omaha. We won 3-1 which made the trip home more bearable. So did the post-game dinner. We parked up outside a Golden Corral and I was shown a bit of real America. There was steak, burgers, pizza, pasta, ice cream, fruit, “cotton candy” (I call it candyfloss), marshmallows, a chocolate fountain. Hundreds of eating options spread out before us at the all-you-can-eat buffet. When I’m old, grey and reminiscing about my college experience in the U.S., I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren about the time I stuffed my face in Nebraska. It was truly special.

There will be a fair few international supporters gracing the Engelmann bleachers this week. James Ashcroft’s parents touched down in America on Friday and my dad, uncle and grandfather will be flying the Manchester to Chicago route the following day. Both groups will be there in time for our game against Wright State. With his folks in town, Ashy will be hoping to continue his “goalscoring form,” as he is calling it, after netting from distance with literally a slice of luck against Nebraska-Omaha. His cross ended up in the goal – sneaking just inside the near post – with the miskick deceiving the helpless goalkeeper.

It will be fantastic for both of us to have family in the stands and I know my 90-year-old granddad has been as giddy as a kid before Christmas in anticipation of the trip. And he has made his expectations for his stay clear: nothing less than Panther victories will do. He’s a little nervous about the potentially cold conditions during the three evening games, though. I’ve already offered him three blankets and a UWM letter jacket to keep him covered but I’m not sure he’s satisfied. So, if you see a white-haired bloke in a wheelchair trying to build an open fire by the field, you’ll know that’s Bell Senior, Senior. I’ll be trying to get on the score sheet to impress my Uncle – a legendary goalscorer in his day playing in the minor English leagues. And to have my dad watching will just feel right. Regrettably, my mother couldn’t come because of work commitments but the three men have agreed to sample as much Wisconsin beer and cheese as possible on her behalf. I’m sure Jamie’s mum and dad will be doing the same.

Finally, I must recognize the reformation of the notorious Engelmann Elite. College soccer nearlyman Nick Grbvac has taken control of the Milwaukee soccer firm, acting as the ‘major’. All sports-loving students should get involved, don the (free) t-shirt and earn citywide status as a member of the rowdy supporters group. Check facebook for details. If not, come to the games anyway and cheer us on in a more civilized manner. Just don’t get in my granddad’s way!