After dropping its last two games to top-25 teams in Dartmouth and Columbia, 1-0 and 2-0, respectively, the Cornell men’s soccer team fell to 7-8-2, 2-5-1 Ivy, to finish the season. But the team knows its tough end to the season and the team’s record are not truly indicative of what the Red has accomplished over the past 19 months.
After an abysmal 2016 season in which the Red went 1-14-2 and 0-7 in the league, the team held a players meeting aimed at changing their work ethic and shifting expectations for the upcoming season.
“We all gathered [after the season] to discuss getting after it in the spring. At that point, [my class] had to step up and lead the team,” said senior captain Spencer Kopko. “This past summer we worked on getting [the freshmen] adjusted to college, and they came in and really hit the ground running and made an immediate impact.”
Even though this year’s sub-.500 record may not seem like much of an achievement, the Red has set itself on track for success.
This year, the team played in 12 games decided by one goal or less. In those games, Cornell split the decisions, winning six and losing six. The Red also amassed six more wins than all of last year and were very much in the running for the Ivy League title up until the last few weeks of the season.
Not to mention, the season featured a dramatic takedown of then-No. 11 upstate rival Syracuse.
“If you look at it statistically, we improved in every aspect,” said head coach John Smith. “We scored more goals, we let in far fewer goals, we had more shots, allowed fewer shots, and from a stats point of view the numbers don’t lie: we’ve improved a fair amount.”
The expectations are high for next year’s team, and Smith wants the team to improve upon what it achieved this year. In addition, he expects the returners to be more physically and mentally prepared.
But most important, he wants the team to be more of a force than they were this year, “and I’m excited for that,” he said.
But as the Red’s season comes to an end, so too do the college careers of its six seniors.
“I told the [team] that in the 19 months that I’ve been here, all six of those guys have given everything they’ve got,” Smith said. “And as a coach, you can’t ask for more than that. They’ve never failed in terms of being punctual and bringing an intensity and bringing a passion and always being there and being ready.”
Last Thursday, just a few days before Saturday’s Senior Day game against Columbia, the team volunteered their evening to serve Thanksgiving dinner to a group of underprivileged Ithacans.
For Smith, it was a moment of pure pride — pride in the development in his squad as not just soccer players, but as people.
“Just to be around the six seniors, all at one table serving, and to watch how they interacted with everybody and how willing and able they were to help, I was swelling with pride,” said Smith. “It’s those moments where you think back and you say ‘these are incredible people, these really are incredible young men.’”
This year’s senior class had a sense of tenacity about them throughout their time with the team. They endured injuries, sickness, coaching and program changes, and sub-par seasons.
“I hope that my senior class is remembered for laying the groundwork for the program to come,” Kopko said. “We will be like the Columbias and the Dartmouths in years to come, but I want to be remembered for going through the hard years when it wasn’t easy and we weren’t winning.”
When the 2018 recruiting class steps on campus next August, with them will be hopes and expectations of greater achievement. Until then, Smith and multiple players have emphasized the importance of improving fitness in the offseason.
“You have to be physically ready to compete every single day, and you have to be the most fit you’ve ever been in your life when you come in for preseason,” said leading goal-scorer freshman Tommy Hansan.
But until the team begins its grueling off-season workouts, they will be celebrating the careers of those six seniors: the six young men who hope to be remembered as the foundation of what has the potential to become a very successful program in the years to come.