Jake Slemker, the second-year Wright State men’s soccer coach, tried everything he could to motivate his players this year. But a few timely words from one of their peers turned out to be the spark they needed.
The preseason Horizon League favorites were hovering around .500 and were in the midst of a late three-game losing streak when Slemker called a team meeting. After his pep talk, senior goal-keeper Joel Sundell felt the need to speak his mind, and his passionate pleas hit home.
“He challenged the group and tried to bring the team together, and it was just the right thing to do,” Slemker said. “He’s been that voice (the players needed). He really put a lot on his shoulders to go out and do it.”
The Raiders won their final regular-season match to qualify for the league tourney and then swept three games as the fifth seed to win the event for the first time, narrowly beating Milwaukee on penalty kicks in the final at UIC on Saturday.
They’ll make the program’s first trip to the NCAA tournament this week and will find out their opponent when the bracket is revealed during a selection show on NCAA.com at 1 p.m. Monday.
“It was pins and needles there,” Slemker said. “We had some chances in the game we felt didn’t go our way, some decisions by the referees. We were kind of getting nervous. But it was an awesome experience.
“The game had all the drama, but the final result, I think, was deserved.”
Sundell, who had a bit of a rough season with a 1.40 goals-against average (up from 1.01 in 2018), certainly did his part. Though goalkeepers are at a disadvantage on PKs, the Swede stopped two of five attempts, while the Raiders missed their first and then connected on their last four, including Jackson Dietrich’s game-winner.
“He’s very patient on PKs,” Slemker said of Sundell. “He makes the shooter think about it. There’s a little bit of mind games that go on.”
Sundell — who received a battlefield promotion of sorts when Slemker made him a captain two weeks ago — earned tourney MVP honors, while Dietrich, Deri Corfe and Ids Hannema also made the all-tourney team.
Slemker said Jeremie Charron, Harvey Slade and Stefan Rokvic had noteworthy performances, too.
But the outcome didn’t feel like an underdog story. The Raiders went into the tourney with an 8-8-2 record but believed they could play with anyone.
“We definitely felt it was wide open,” Slemker said, noting how close their league matches were this season. “We were definitely confident. We knew we had to come alive and dig in and make a little run. And it worked.
“It’s a great feeling for the guys. They were buzzing (on the way home). We’ll find out who we play Monday, but we have a good chance playing against anybody.
“We’ve played some really tough teams. We tied Marshall, which is top 15 in the country. We tied Duke. We know who we are and are excited to see who we get to face.”
Slemker was crushed at the end of last season. The Raiders were 13-2-3 and were ranked as high as 11th nationally but lost to UIC, 3-1, in the tourney final on their home field.
“That’s the game of soccer. It can be brutal at times, and it can be very rewarding,” he said.
“This year, we had to go through a lot of struggles to find ourselves. The last four games, we’ve really come together and have done great stuff and have made history. It’s pretty special.”
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