Winning nearly half of its matches and scoring exactly as many goals as it allowed, the Linfield men’s soccer team experienced as close to a .500 season as one can get, statistically speaking. But numbers never tell the whole story.
From a five-match win streak to a five-match losing streak, and from a 7-0 victory to a 4-0 loss, this young Wildcat team had many opportunities to learn and grow in a wide range of experiences.
At 8-9-1 overall, including 5-8-1 in Northwest Conference matches, Linfield matched its sixth-place finish from a year ago, albeit with one more point and one more overall victory.
It’s “bittersweet,” Chuck Bechtol said when reflecting on his second season as head coach. “We left some games on the table that we could have had better results in.”
The Wildcats won close games, like a 1-0 win over Willamette, but also lost tight matches, like a double-overtime, heartbreaking 3-2 defeat to the Bearcats in the season finale. Linfield took it to some of the top teams in the league, tying then sixth-ranked Pacific Lutheran, but also often dug itself big holes against quality opponents.
“We were winning the games I felt we should win,” Bechtol said. “We were competitive in the other games; we just missed opportunities.”
In illustration of that point, Linfield averaged the second highest number of shots per match (15.8) in the eight-team league, but ranked just fifth in total goals.
Anchoring the defense was fifth-year senior and second team all-conference honoree Harper Taylor, who assumed a new role as center back, a mold he fit extremely well according to Bechtol. Freshman Kainalu Kealoha was “a big plus” playing alongside Taylor in the backfield, while Jake Smith added more depth.
Another rookie, Jorge Rodriguez, took the majority of starts between the pipes, allowing 1.71 goals per game in 14 contests. Veteran Grant Loriaux saw action in 11 matches, registering a 1.64 goals-against average.
“We were better defensively this year, for the most part, but still had some breakdowns,” Bechtol said. “I don’t know if we put together a complete game throughout the course of the year. We’d have 5-10 minutes where we would let down.”
Offensively, the Wildcats had considerably more balance in the scoring column than in years past, with five players totaling three or more goals. Brian DeGrandmont led the ‘Cats with eight goals, while Domenico Del Prete and Nicholas Autencio added five more each.
Jake Baker and Tyler Repic, both second team picks, served primarily as playmakers. Baker paced the squad with five assists to go along with four goals, but his performance was limited during the second half of the season due to injury. Even then, “everything went through him,” Bechtol said. Repic dished out three assists and had moments of brilliance in the midfield. “His stats don’t show it, but he was a very dangerous player because he didn’t score,” Bechtol said.
Riding a five-match win streak against conference opponents, Linfield was sitting pretty in third place at the midpoint of the Northwest Conference schedule. But the Wildcats struggled down the stretch, losing their final five contests by a combined score of 17-3.
In addition to being decimated by injures – Bechtol said the team only had about eight healthy men by the end of the year – Linfield’s youth also may have factored into the late-season collapse.
“It’s such a grind,” Bechtol says. “Going through your freshman year, you just don’t realize what a grind it is on your body and your mind and trying to stay in it for that total period of time.”
But overall, the rookies, about six or seven of which were starters, performed well. And with the team only losing two seniors from this year’s roster, the future looks bright for Linfield men’s soccer.
“We’re continuing to get better. It seemed like every game we were getting better with the things that we wanted to do and build on,” Bechtol said. “Now the question is, can we continue to put stock in the cupboards, get better and continue to learn and keep moving?”