With improvement coming in the form of more than just victories, Linfield continued to make strides toward becoming a consistently winning and top-tier Northwest Conference program during the 2015 season.
Finishing with a 9-11 overall record, including a 5-9 mark against league opponents, the ‘Cats were sixth in the final Northwest Conference standings, just one point out of a tie for fourth place.
After a 4-0 preseason start, the Wildcats dropped the next two but bounced back with a 3-1 conference-opening victory at home against Whitman. Though the team was unable to string together multiple wins during the league schedule, Linfield remained in the hunt for a top-four finish up until the final weekend of play.
“We had some games we gave away that didn’t help us in the standings, but we’re definitely better than we were last year,” said head coach Chuck Bechtol. “Every year we seem to get better, it’s just a matter of getting results.”
Statistically, the Wildcats improved in all major areas when comparing the 2014 and 2015 seasons. In addition to the nine victories – the most under its fourth-year coach – Linfield increased the number of goals scored (28 to 37) and decreased the number allowed (36 to 33). The team never lost by more than two goals, and also never yielded more than three in a single match.
“In previous years we’d have one or two games when we’d have a significant letdown and it turned into an ugly score, but we didn’t have any of those,” Bechtol said. “We were competitive in every game, just had some no-good luck.”
Positively impacting Linfield’s defensive success was its talented and improved back line. All-Northwest Conference first team honoree Aaron Barber-Axthelm, who missed all but six matches of his freshman season due to injury, contributed key minutes along with Wyatt Lay, Marshall Denley and Chris Palmer.
Veteran goalkeeper Jorge Rodriguez posted a 1.66 goals-against average, a .707 save percentage and three shutouts in 1,570 minutes of action between the posts.
Offensively, 12 different Wildcats tallied 37 total goals, third most among conference programs. All-league first and second team honorees Moi Diaz and Brian DeGrandmont led the charge, striking seven times apiece.
Alexander Gosselin-Bockel contributed three goals and a team-high five assists despite playing with limited mobility due to injury, and Rhys Lendio had a career season, totaling five goals as Linfield’s most dangerous threat off the bench. Sophomore midfielder Dylan Leathers supplied three goals in a reserve role.
Adding to Linfield’s depth were sophomores Michael Kleeman and Austin Bebee and senior Piikea Kailio, whose first career goal and solid minutes over the final five matches provided a great end-of-season highlight for the Wildcats.
The team certainly missed the talents of some key contributors due to injury. Promising rookie defender Dylan Shephard, who started eight matches at center back, missed the entire second half of the season. Offensively, Tyler Repic was never quite 100 percent, and Leathers battled various ailments throughout the year before sitting out the final five contests entirely.
But Linfield’s shortcomings in the win column also arose from missed opportunities. In three of its toughest losses to figure out – George Fox, Pacific and Willamette – the Wildcats outshot their opponents, including a 25-16 margin against the Bearcats in the final match of the year, a 3-2 double-overtime heartbreaker. Of Linfield’s 37 goals on the year, just 19 came against conference opponents.
Rebuilding a program takes patience, a fact not lost on the Wildcats’ head coach. So with a season of progress in the rearview mirror and the knowledge that Linfield returns the majority of its roster in 2016, he remains optimistic about the future of the program.
“I was proud of the guys,” Bechtol said. “We got better. We’re doing the right things.”