By Nick Mendola
Niagara Gazette — If the Purple Eagles want to soar, they have to first run with the Greyhounds.
That’s the message arriving with Thursday 7 p.m.’s conference opener for the undefeated Niagara men’s soccer team: the season’s undefeated start has already made history, but the road to being a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference power begins in earnest versus conference power Loyola.
The Greyhounds are the gold standard in the MAAC, with 16 titles appearances and 12 wins. Their last title came in 2009 when the Purple Eagles made a surprise run to the final only to lose in kicks.
There’s a title feel in Western New York this season, however, given the hot starts for both Niagara and cross-bridge rival Canisius. Purple Eagles head coach Chase Brooks knows he can build on not only this year’s unbeaten beginning, but the quick success of his rookie MAAC campaign, where he went 4-2-3 including a tie at Loyola.
“Having seen it for a year, I’m still figuring out the style of the conference as a whole,” Brooks said. “It’s a more defensive-minded conference... a bit of size who are going to sit on you and force you to try and break them down.”
Now in Season Two of the Brooks regime, Niagara can become the team that pushes their game on the opposition. The Purple Eagles first look as to whether they match up with the MAAC’s “Big Three” of Iona, Loyola and Fairfield is a big one.
An international approach is helping Niagara get their proverbial feet under them. Brooks has seen strength from a Swedish midfielder, an American back and keeper plus Canadian and English strikers.
While Barrie, Ont. forward Bryan Da Cruz and towering English forward Callum Wilmott have scored the bulk of the goals for the Purple Eagles, it’s the calm midfield play of Swede middie Jacob Ohlin that has served to arrange calm in the center of the park. B
“Our entire backline has stepped up and Jacob has been fantastic,” Brooks said, citing a Willis Reed-moment for Ohlin during a particularly stressful match. “Honestly, we probably shouldn’t have put him on the field but we needed him to go in and settle down the game.”
The Purple Eagles .871 save percentage ranks No. 9 out of 205 D-I teams and their .82 goals against average is 37th. Brooks gives loads of credit to Illinois netminder Brett Petricek, a technically sound keeper who is also capable of the brilliant game-saver.
They will need it versus Loyola, who has a number of extremely dangerous offensive weapons. Beyond diminutive German striker Larry Ndjock is Northern Ireland’s Stephen Dooley, who upon return from injury has compiled three goals and three assists in just four games. Also of local and national note, Orchard Park freshman Jordan Dilapo is a back-up keeper for Loyola and Major League Soccer legend Zach Thornton is the Greyhounds goalkeeper coach.
So there’s a task ahead of Niagara as one of eight undefeated men’s Division I teams in the nation. So rather than push his team during a two-week layoff, Brooks relented a bit.
“The first nine games were very strenuous,” Brooks said. “We’ve got injuries and I’ve actually taken my foot off the gas. To push now would take away from what we have accomplished, and would not allow them that slight mental and physical break they need to get refocused.”
Refocusing helps but the time off also allows for a lot of analysis. Sitting at 6-0-3 has forced Brooks to prepare for every potential eventuality.
“I’ve gone through every scenario in my head a million times,” he said. “I’ve thought about winning every game from here on out. I’ve thought about losing every game from here on out. We’re always focused on the next game, but we have to be building toward something. We have to be ready to react to anything that’s thrown at us in between.”