Haverford’s soccer team comes back from a bad year
By Alexander Clark
For the Haverford men’s soccer team, 2017 was a year to forget.
Starting the year in all of the national rankings, the team started 6-1-1, accentuated by a 2-1 win over eventual national champion Messiah College. After the strong start, Haverford finished the rest of it’s their games a combined 4-4-2.
A 10-5-3 record with an appearance in the conference tournament is nothing to scoff at. For the Haverford standard, though, it simply wasn’t good enough. A 5-0 thrashing by Dickinson in the first round of the conference tournament ended the Fords’ season of bitter disappointment.
As those who follow Division III soccer know, keeping up dominance for years on end it an extremely challenging task. After two straight Centennial Conference championships and an appearance in the NCAA Elite 8 the previous two years, those within the program knew that the 2018 season would be a defining year for the Fords.
Losing three all-conference performers and the entire coaching staff from the 2017 squad, the spring and summer would prove to be vital if Haverford were to restore its place as one of the premier teams within the region.
Safe to say, Haverford soccer is back.
Led by the 10 seniors in the class of 2019, Haverford soccer reestablished itself as the team to beat in the Centennial. Picked fifth in the preseason conference poll, the Fords’ revenge tour resulted in a 14-4-1 record, highlighted by another Centennial Conference championship, the seniors’ third in four years.
After a 2-0 start to the year under new head coach Zach Ward, the Fords ran into a rough patch. Losing four of their next five, with two of those games being against nationally ranked opponents, Haverford had run into an early stumbling block. The season had reached its turning point, for a slow start sometimes can doom a team, keeping them out of the at-large bid discussion when it is time to select teams for the NCAA tournament.
The seniors, through their experience and leadership, had the roster regroup and refocused heading into the bulk of the conference schedule. Sitting at 3-4, the Fords ripped off 11 straight wins, including an undefeated October, en route to the Centennial Conference championship.
Haverford’s year of redemption was brought on by uncharacteristic losses during the 2017 season. A 2-0 loss to Johns Hopkins, a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Gettysburg, and two losses, 3-2 and 5-0, to Dickinson had left Haverford out of the national conversation.
This year? The Fords went undefeated in matches against those teams. A 1-0 win against Johns Hopkins opened the conference slate, while 2-0 wins against both Gettysburg and Dickinson helped the Fords to win the regular season title, giving them the right to host the conference tournament.
A 1-0 win over Dickinson in the conference semifinals allowed Haverford a rematch with the only team that had beaten them in conference during the season. The Franklin & Marshall Diplomats, ranked as the 19th team in the country, had handed the Fords a 2-1 overtime loss in Lancaster in late September.
Haverford’s main rival within the Centennial, F&M had won the conference in the 2017 season. This year, their quest to repeat fell short.
Haverford prevailed with a 3-2 double overtime victory, capped off with All-American junior Nick Jannelli’s goal in the 103rd minute. Walton field went into a frenzy, and although there were hundreds of ecstatic fans, parents, and players, none were more satisfied than the seniors.
After their year of hard work, leading the team through a coaching transition, and directing the squad on and off of the field, their main goal was achieved. Although this was just one of the three championships the seniors left their Haverford careers with, this one proved to be the most special.
The contribution of the 10-man class on the field as well as the leadership they provided academically and within the community dispelled the naysayers claiming that they had been carried to their first two championships by older members of the teams. Rewarded with four all-conference team selections, the seniors proved their worth as one of the best classes in Haverford history.
These are the players that led to Haverford back to the top of the conference. Graduating as the winningest class in school history, the group’s leadership and poise has Haverford soccer perfectly primed to be a national contender for years to come.
Ben Clark, Reiss Berger, Nick John, Aaron Sterngass, and Jeremy Astesano all contributed to a defense that limited conference opponents to just 0.63 goals a game during the 2018 season.
Riddled with injuries during most of his playing career, Clark overcame a torn meniscus towards the end of the 2017 season to earn a first-team all-conference selection.
Berger and John, who grew up playing club soccer together, combined to have a three-year run in which they were the best pairing of outside backs in the conference.
Sterngass, a walk-on during his junior season, pushed underclassmen in the weight room and was always there to pick the team up during tough stretches.
Astesano, a goalkeeper who battled injury throughout his senior year, graduates as one of the top-10 goalies in Haverford history.
A strong defense, a hallmark of great Haverford teams, was led by this group. With Sterngass as one of the leaders of the reserve unit, Clark, Berger, and John were pushed on a daily basis in training in order to continually fine-tune a defense that proved to be tops in the conference two out of a possible four years, finishing no worse than fourth best.
A talented goalkeeper lauded for his athleticism and shot-stopping ability, Astesano played in 31 matches in his Haverford career, going a combined 19-5-5. Although a lingering concussion kept him from playing his normal minutes this year, Astesano graduates ranking third in goals against average (0.98), seventh in save percentage (.791), and tenth all time in wins. Had he not been injured, those stats would’ve only continued to ascend the record boards.
While all contributed to the success of the team both on and off the field, they also applauded their fellow seniors and their ability to lead the team back to prominence.
“The way that everything came together by the end of the season was really special,” Clark said. “If anyone had told us that we would win 11 straight and be conference champions after losing to F&M in September, I don’t think I would have believed them. The team really came together, and it showed with results on the field.”
Sterngass echoed similar sentiments.
“Feeling like our class was directly responsible for the leadership and the subsequent success of the team and winning so many redemption games helped to make the year so special,” he said.
Despite the fact that he wasn’t able to see the field as much as he should have, Astesano still thinks it was the collective work of the senior class that led the group to new heights this year.
“On the field, I think our class’ significant contribution throughout our four years fostered success in the final one,” he said. “Off the field, an understanding that hard work is what would lead us to more success gave us the opportunity to go into games and win.”
Each defender brought their own strengths on the field, with the unit combining for 32 shutouts, three goals, and six assists throughout their stint with the Fords.
Most of all, the senior defenders leave thankful for being able to leave their stamp on the program and graduate with a new set of teammates and brothers.
“I’m most thankful for the bonds that I’ve created with my teammates,” Berger said. “There’s nothing quite like winning and succeeding with your brothers. The program and coaches also taught me to dig deep and grind no matter what.”
John, who stated his love for the program similarly, also added that he’s able to give back to the program as much as possible.
“My classmates are some of my closest friends I have in my life. I think we demanded success, and we were going to get it no matter what was thrown at us,” he said. “I hope to be there for the guys below me as my upperclassmen were to me.”
With the loss of three 2017 all-conference selections from the team, the midfield was bound to have a new look headed into the season. Replacing three new starters is no easy task for any team, let alone a team with Haverford-like expectations.
Come the end of the 2018 season, a case could be made for saying that this midfield group’s ability to step up was the most important piece in Haverford’s success on the year.
Julian Bright, Max Krieg, Aditya Dias, Nick Montgomery, and Michael Carr all contributed to run a midfield unit that dominated on both sides of the ball.
Although Julian Bright didn’t see the field his senior year due to injury, his leadership and experience proved invaluable to the outside midfield position, a group that was still finding its identity as the season began.
A player with a knack for performing in big moments, Max Krieg proved to be an invaluable part of the team this year, earning second-team all-conference honor.
Seen as a “super sub”, Dias was almost always the first player called off of the bench during his senior season.
Nick Montgomery, although only playing three years for the Fords due to injuries, became an important cog in the wheel of Haverford’s success, earning 52 appearances and 12 starts over his three years.
A four-year starter, Carr saved his best soccer for his last year, turning in a second-team all-region performance, along with a first-team all-conference award in his final season.
Spearheading a unit that scored 13 goals and assisted on 10 more throughout the 2018 season, these players’ ability on both sides of the ball allowed Haverford to right their ship and turn the year around. With Carr leading the attacking aspects and Krieg leading the defensive responsibilities, Ward did not have to worry about they work rate and leadership in the middle of the pitch.
“For me, this season was the culmination of all my hard work over the previous three and a half years. Transitioning from consistent substitute to consistent starter was a goal that I had been pursuing for a while, and I’m so happy that I was able to stamp my influence on this season’s success,” Krieg said. “My performances this season were something that I knew I was capable of, and it was an amazing feeling to know that I was right to believe in myself.”
Carr, who graduates as the all-time leader in matches played, also soaked in the successes that the season provided.
“I think it was a special season because so many guys understood their role in the team and understood how to take a hold of that role and maximize their impact on the team in a unique way,” he said.
Dias and Montgomery, although not consistently in the starting 11, were always the first two called off of the bench. When the Fords needed a spark, they were the two to provide it.
Both were quick to praise their fellow classmates for their ability to draw the best out of the squad.
“I think our class did a good job of consistently acting as though we were going to control our own results,” Montgomery said. “Having such a big class of guys who played gave me a sense that we had total control over how far we were going to go.”
Dias was happy that the specifically the seniors put their own stamp on Haverford history.
“Even though we had been successful before our senior year, I never really felt like it was our class’ success – we had obviously contributed but there were older guys on the team who always bore most of the burden and took on more responsibility,” he said. “This year though, we proved that we could bring the same success on our own.”
With a goal and three assists in 37 career appearances, Bright, who couldn’t play due to a cartilage injury, shifted his focus from providing an impact on the field to mentoring and supporting from the sidelines. He commended his classmates for helping him to push others throughout the season.
“Everyone stepped up. Just watching from the sidelines, you could tell that we all wanted this and recognized that we had what it took to lead this team to a championship,” he said. “Nobody had an underclassmen mentality anymore.”
As the last senior, I write to express my gratitude to all of the other members of the class of 2019. I could list my statistics as I did the others, but the thing I am most proud of is the band of brothers that I’ll leave Haverford with. No matter the goals that each person scored or prevented from happening, I am most proud of each player for contributing to a culture that breeds success both on and off of the field.
Each player listed above helped me grow as both a player and person during my four seasons here. I’m sure everybody else would say the same about their classmates. We’ve had our disagreements about both soccer and life in general, but we’ve always made decisions with our team and friends in mind.
In the spring, it will be a strange feeling. Staying in our apartment while the rest of the team goes out for their allocated spring practices will be a change that none of us are used to. Hell, this is the first time that we won’t all be playing competitive soccer since we were around five years old. We will, as we have in the past, lean on each other to get through our difficulties in academics, life, and the lack of soccer. But looking back, we couldn’t have asked for more as a senior class. To leave with three conference championships is something we wouldn’t have ever imagined when stepping on to campus for the first time.
Our year of redemption has come to a close, and our next steps in life are unknown. I do know one thing is for certain. When next year’s alumni game comes in August, the class of 2019 will be back. Maybe then, the alumni can finally have their long-awaited revenge on the varsity squad.