One season ago, Grace’s men’s soccer team was one win short of hoisting a national championship trophy.
After losing in the title game of the NCCAA National Championships, the Lancers are hungry to take the next step as a program in 2020.
Head coach Arron Patrick, now in his second year at the helm of the Lancers, has guided the team through a myriad of obstacles just to reach this season.
The first obstacle was the loss of a spring season due to the pandemic. But Grace took full advantage of the time off, initiating an inspiring marathon that was noticed around the world.
The Lancers ran in shifts for a week straight, running around the clock and around the globe in their home countries. The weeklong marathon was picked up by national outlets like Runner’s World, Chicago Tribune, and ESPN.
The goal was to raise funds for COVID-19 relief organizations — which they did to the tune of more than $20,000. But the byproduct was also developing an internal belief that the Lancers could outwork anyone else.
That mindset has fueled Grace during the pandemic, resulting in the fittest team Patrick can ever remember being around.
“The guys are insanely fit, which means we didn’t need to spend almost any time on running during practice,” he said. “We realized through the COVID run that nobody can outwork us. We feel with this group that it’s unacceptable to be outworked in a game because of what we’ve put ourselves through in the offseason.”
The second obstacle was a shortened preseason. While Grace typically has three weeks before school starts to focus on training, COVID-19 chopped that focused preseason time down to three days before classes began. The international athletes — of which there are 14 this fall from 10 countries — each had to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival to Grace.
But Patrick made sure the Lancers still took advantage of the quarantined time, directing a number of team-building experiences that were physically and mentally challenging.
“I feel like our togetherness really grew during preseason even without having practices,” Patrick said. “It has been cool to see the guys bond together and transform as a team.”
Patrick noted that Grace’s togetherness will be important because of the team’s depth. There is fierce competition across the practice pitch, according to Patrick, as players jockey for playing time at numerous positions.
Grace returns 17 players, many of which were key contributors in 2019. But the Lancers also have 13 new players suiting up this fall, setting the stage for a deep squad.
“I have no idea who our first 11 players will be to start. It’s not because we have holes, but because we have tremendous depth,” Patrick said. “But the team is learning how to compete hard while maintaining respect for each other, pushing each other in practice but letting it go when the whistle blows. It’s been great to see their growth in that.”
Marcelo Talamas highlights Grace’s returners. The reigning Crossroads League Offensive Player of the Year exploded with 15 goals and five assists in 2019 to pace Grace’s attack.
Ulisses Miranda (six goals, four assists), Felipe Gruber (four goals, two assists) and Ze Maria Goncalves (two goals, three assists) also were key contributors last year. Cedric Brenneman and Tyler Brueckman have impressed in the preseason, and newcomers Diago Adachi and Blake Burns also figure to break into the lineup early this fall.
“We will not struggle to score goals this year,” Patrick commented. “We have a lot of depth and different options, allowing us to play very direct or more crafty depending on our personnel.”
Shemar DeGannes has been one of the most improved players over the offseason and will likely see time as a wide player, and Jonny Mora, Alex Vandeyacht and Frederik Christmann will also play roles there.
Joe Bowles transferred to Grace from Akron University. The 6-foot-3 goalkeeper from London, England, is “the most talented goalkeeper I’ve coached or played against,” according to Patrick. Bowles, who will have one year with Grace, has worked hard to be a leader. Colton Wottring and Sam Boyer give Grace ample depth at the keeper position.
So now the Lancers will face another obstacle — navigating a challenging schedule during a pandemic.
Due to the pandemic, Grace will play 13 Crossroads League matches this fall in a reworked conference season. The team will have just one exhibition and one non-conference game to prepare for the league season.
The Crossroads League will be split into two divisions, meaning Grace will play home-and-away matchups against teams in their own division while playing teams in the opposite division one time apiece.
But Patrick was confident that the Lancers would be up for the challenge, particularly after seeing the team navigate the previous COVID challenges so well.
“This team is way better than last year already; it’s not remotely close,” Patrick said. “We need to remain organized in how we play, which comes from our communication and togetherness. If we do that, we will have success this year.”
The Lancers will have an exhibition match at home on Saturday against Point Park before the season opener at Indiana Tech on Sept. 12. Grace’s first home match is Sept. 19 against Goshen.