WINONA LAKE – It’s not often a coach will find solace in a shutout loss in a national championship game.
It was difficult, but Arron Patrick is making it work.
Grace College rode the peaks and valleys of a 2019 men’s soccer season all the way to the championship game of the NCCAA National Championship. For just the third time in the program’s 54-year history, and first since 1976, the school reached the summit of the NCCAA soccer calendar, with some paramount moments folded with the disappointment of a lopsided loss in the championship match against Mid-America Christian University. Could a 5-0 loss in the title game really be a good thing?
“Emotionally, our guys have come back day after day asking ‘What’s next?’” Patrick said. “You don’t see that after a 5-0 loss that ends your season. We’ve seen that from these guys all year.”
Patrick, in his first year with Grace after a coaching stint with rival Goshen College, had high expectations for his program and started to see those being met immediately after a 7-1-2 start to the season. The Lancers owned two ties against ranked opponents and its tenth match was a 2-0 win over Goshen, one Patrick visibly just wanted to get over with. From there, however, Grace would hit a run of bad luck, going 0-4-1 with three of those results ending in overtime.
Patrick maintains his side was the better club in those five matches, but felt the proverbial ping pong balls sometimes don’t always go their intended ways.
“What I was most proud of this team, from the players to the coaches, was when things got bad in stretches, they didn’t revert back to what they used to know,” Patrick said. “They understood what we were trying to do, they would recognize it and correct themselves. Early in the season, for 20 minutes, we would play my way. Two or three games later, maybe 30 minutes. By the end of the season at nationals, they played my way the entire time. And we weren’t playing schmucks where we could just come in and dominate.”
Grace would climb back up the hill with a pair of shutouts against St. Francis and Marian to close the regular season, and accepted a six-seed in the conference tournament. A 1-0 overtime loss at Bethel, Patrick’s alma mater, in the first round left the program scratching its heads in bewilderment. However, an invitation to the NCCAA national tournament was quickly accepted.
Patrick saw his side pick up its play considerably in a 4-0 run of Ecclesia in the opening round of pool play in Kissimmee. In what amounted to a throw-away match against Ottawa, the 2-1 loss still saw the Lancers dominate touches and the run of play. Patrick then noted the 1-0 national semi-final win over Campbellsville, a perennial top-20 NAIA program, really showed the progress the program made.
The game-winner came from Ivan Santagiuliana, taking a cross-box feed from Togo Narusawa in the 25th minute to bury the match’s only goal far post. It was what Grace did in the final 55 minutes that showed the heart of a champion.
“Campbellsville was a watershed moment, not because we won a semi-final, but it was how we did it,” Patrick said. “We controlled the ball, dominated the ball. Second half, we dropped off and protected what we had. I turned to my assistants and said, ‘See.’ We dictated the game without the ball. They showed bravery in the first half with the ball and they showed bravery in the second half without the ball, just putting on the helmets and just defending. That was a big moment for the program going forward.”
Patrick wasn’t short in noting the difference between champion MACU and Grace in the final. Loaded with a roster of tenured and experienced internationals, MACU showed the young Lancers what they want to be. The Lancers started three sophomores and a freshman as well as sophomore goalkeeper Colton Wottring, a Warsaw Community High School grad, who had not made a career start until this season. Nine of the 11 starters for MACU were internationals.
“We accomplished that change of the way we want to play stylistically and we exceeded my expectations,” Patrick said. “It was such a fast change to go to more possession, controlling the game with the ball and moving the ball. To implement all of the things I wanted to do, I never thought we would get to them, and in many ways, we did.”