In 2019, after outscoring their opponents 14-1 in their last four matches enroute to claiming their first ECAC championship since 1988, the Muhlenberg men’s soccer program was looking to ride this momentum into the 2020-2021 season. With COVID-19 spreading throughout the country, the Mules chase for a Centennial Conference Championship may be put on hold. However, they continue to adapt to the situation and do the best they can for whenever the season may start.
A huge part of every sports program is developing the freshmen talent and fitting them into the program’s culture.
While no coach has ever been in a situation like this before, Head Coach Sean Topping ‘98 looks to be the right guy to overcome this type of adversity. He has been coaching the Mules since 2002, with multiple NCAA playoff runs during that time.
In addition to having a veteran head coach, Muhlenberg is fortunate enough to have freshmen be allowed on campus this fall. Besides taking part in Zoom calls and conference calls with the upperclassmen players, the freshmen team members are actually able to practice multiple times a week.
Although they are able to practice, the team still has to abide by the COVID-19 rules. This meant Coach Topping had to make changes to his usual practice plan.
Midfielder Luke Feeney ‘24 said, “In the early practice sessions we could not defend each other.” Feeney explained, “Coach Topping made the practice sessions very technical and was really focusing on making us get in the habit of receiving the ball to the back foot so that we have more options when the ball is at our feet.”
As Coronavirus cases have been decreasing in the Lehigh Valley, the freshmen players are now able to open up their practices. Practices now include competing in 3 players vs. 3 players variations with small and big goals which has helped the players improve their endurance and skill set.
One of the biggest advantages for the freshmen team members has been the ability to practice alongside Captain Gnim Bazim ‘21, who was approved to live on campus and eligible to attend practices.
“It’s been wonderful both being on campus and being able to practice this semester. Coming off a very successful season last year, I had hoped this would be an even better fall. With hopes of winning the conference and fighting for the national championship but obviously that did not happen,” said Bazim. “However, being on campus and playing with the freshmen has been a great opportunity.”
During his time with the team’s youngest members, the veteran Bazim has truly made an impression and has rightfully served as a role model. This has proven especially true for Feeney, who has grown to admire Bazim.
“He has done a really good job setting a good example with all of us on campus. He is a really easy going and nice guy so it has been easy to build a good relationship with him,” said Feeney.
With the way the world is today, social media has played a huge role in bringing the team together. Many players mentioned the team utilizes their multiple team group chats, on different platforms, has helped them learn more about each other’s background.
Besides the freshmen on-campus and Bazim, the rest of the men on the squad are finding ways to stay engaged and in-shape from their homes all over the world, including midfielder Victor Jacobs ‘21, who lives in the Netherlands.
This group of players who have been at their homes since March includes many talented players such as Captain Mark Walter ‘22, who was recently selected to Muhlenberg Men’s Soccer All-Decade Team.
For Walter, the past 6 months have been a really difficult stretch, where he misses being with teammates on and off the field. “Throughout this process, I have learned to not take anything for granted and to make the most out of every opportunity/experience,” Walter said.
Although he would rather be practicing with his fellow Mules in person, the team has been having many Zoom calls and even virtual workouts. Walter has also been fortunate to be able to play for a club soccer team, which he says is helping him stay connected with the game and stay prepared.
Bazim added, “We’re making the most out of the practices that we have and have been improving everyday—all in hopes of possibly playing games in the spring.”
The ball is still up in the air for when the season may begin, but this squad is going to heavily rely on players like Bazim and Walter, as well as Phillip Bell ‘22 (who started 19 of 21 games in 2019) to pave the way for the freshman and to help guide new starters as the Mules lost a fair amount of their talented veterans to graduation. Before we know it the defending ECAC champions will be regenerating their momentum and are hopeful to go on another postseason run.