The Men’s Soccer team celebrates a goal.  Photo by Celeste Cirillo-Penn.

By Celeste Cirillo-Penn

In 2008, the Cornell Men’s Soccer team faced one of the most disappointing seasons in program history, ending with a record of 1-15. Now, four years later, the team has achieved its goals, turning around the program with an incredible season that culminated in an Ivy League Championship and bid to the NCAA national tournament.

“It’s just a spectacular feeling to achieve the goals that you’ve been striving for all this time,” senior midfielder, Nico Nissl said.  “All the hard work that you put in finally coming down to this.”

The road to the Ivy Championship and NCAA bid has been a long one, encompassing a four-year journey. Seniors, Nissl and Rick Pflasterer, who joined the team the year after the 1-15 season, and Tyler Regan, who transferred to Cornell the following year, experienced firsthand the challenges of a new coaching staff and culture.

“Obviously, in a new system the coaching staff is trying to grow and figure out what works best for the program, and while we’re in it we’re growing along with them,” goalkeeper Pflasterer said.

Despite the challenges, the team credits its ability to succeed to the new culture brought by head coach, Jaro Zawislan.

“It’s definitely a new philosophy,” senior, forward, Regan said.  “Coach Jaro lives the game; he breathes the game, and he expects everybody on the team to do the same.  He really has done a great job of not just taking players who are very talented, but players with a great mindset.”

From that first year the program grew because of the culture Zawislan created.

“We always look for the people…that don’t just come to the training sessions to punch in and punch out the card,” Zawislan said.  “We look for the players who are committed to studying the game, developing themselves and improving themselves on a daily basis…  That passion, that interest, that commitment to developing their game has been the key.”

However, with that level of intensity, strong team chemistry has been crucial.

“We do pretty much everything together,” Nissl said.  “Everyone’s got their unique individual personalities that they bring to the team, which really helps to lighten the load when you need it to be lightened.  But then everyone knows that when it’s time to get serious everyone has to be serious, and it’s pretty much game time.”

The team’s bond is essential, especially after last season when a late stumble put the Ivy League title and NCAA at large bid just out of reach.  These near misses pushed the team to come back stronger this season.

“It just motivated us to work that much harder because sitting in that room with all your teammates and then not hearing your name called [for the bid] is brutal,” Regan said.  “So the offseason – the winter, the spring, the summer – I think everyone just worked harder than they’ve ever worked.”

Zawislan believes that the extra work in the offseason allowed them to achieve so much success this year.

“When they went back home for the summer they took ownership to keep progressing,” Zawislan said.  “[It] was tremendous to experience the level of the players coming into the preseason.  We didn’t have to work on the cardio fitness; we were able to just jump in right away.”

With the increased fitness level, the team immediately showed that this season was going to be different.  Straight out of the gates in a series of games in California, the men were able to prove their ability, not only to the soccer world, but also to themselves.

“For the last four years we never really felt anything like this, so I think getting those first couple of wins in California was a huge boost for us,” Pflasterer said.  “We came in more confident to a lot of games.  We knew we could do it.”

Tyler Regan dribbles past a defender.  Photo by Celeste Cirillo-Penn.

From there the team went on to compile an impressive 12 game undefeated streak, which eclipsed the previous Cornell record of 11 games set in 1995.

However, despite the undefeated streak, the team remained focused on each successive game.

“I don’t think I really realized we were on a streak until the very end,” Nissl said. “We were so focused on each week that one game.  As soon as we get the result, we move on from it.”

That attitude allowed the team to combat the mounting pressure and continue to produce positive results.

“We had to take every game just one game at a time,” Regan said.  “If you look at the whole season, if you look at trying to get to the tournament, trying to win the Ivies, it gets very overwhelming.”

This attitude also helped the men bounce back from a tough loss to Brown that ended their streak and put their Ivy League championship goal in jeopardy.  The team lost 2-0 in a game that saw Cornell fall to second in the Ivy League standings with only three games left to play, and its future depending on Brown’s subsequent games.

“When it happened it sucked. I’m not going to lie,” Regan said.  “It’s one of those games where we felt like we played well.  We got chances, but we had some unfortunate breaks.”

However, the team pulled together and immediately regrouped.

“We met with the team, and we asked the team where are we going to go from here?  What are we going to do now?” Nissl said.  “Everyone straight away said our next game, Princeton, that’s a game we have to win, and if we win that we’ll move on from there. Everyone was just so determined to be able to step on the field again and to prove themselves.”

The team rebounded to beat Princeton 1-0, and went on to defeat Dartmouth 2-1 in a thrilling double overtime victory.

“If you’re getting tired, you make one more run.  You make one more tackle because it’s not like we get another chance,” Regan said.

That same day, Brown tied with Yale, allowing Cornell to reclaim the top of the standings with only one game to go and the squad’s future in its own hands going into the final game of the season against Columbia.

“It was a battle,” Pflasterer said of the Columbia game.  “When we won [1-0], it was crazy.  Everyone kind of erupted, and it was just fans and players running, and jumping up and down, and cheering.”

As a result of the Ivy League Championship victory, the team won an automatic bid to the NCAA Championships.  However, the squad faced an early exit in the NCAAs after a heartbreaking 0-1 loss to Syracuse in the first round.

Despite the loss in the NCAA tournament, the team has accomplished much and created a legacy at Cornell.

“The year before [the current seniors began playing at Cornell] we were 1-15, and now we are 15-1,” Pflasterer said.  “This year is a culmination of everything coming together for us, and I’m proud of being part of that legacy that said they could turn this Cornell soccer program around.”