At the end of spring term last year, one of my “Bold Predictions” was that the men’s soccer team would finish in the upper half of the MWC, earning themselves a berth in the MWC Tournament. The Prairie Fire seem more than on pace to finish in the upper half: their 11-2 (4-1 conference) record is far and away the best mark in the league, earning them one of the best starts in Knox history.
The question, then, becomes how the Prairie Fire have done it. This is a team that is only two seasons removed from a 1-16 record. There have not been major changes in recruiting tactics nor have there been major facility upgrades for the Prairie Fire. Rather, the changes have started from Head Coach Matt Edwards and have made their way down to every player on the Knox squad.
“We’ve executed really well in the games so far. We’ve improved on set pieces, which has been massive for us. We haven’t given up as many goals on set pieces Ñ corners, free kicks, long throws,” Edwards said in an interview with the Galesburg Register-Mail. “We’ve tried to have great team shape, tried to defend really well, play with a really high pressure, a good mentality and counter attack very well. We’ve done that.”
While there’s no denying that the Prairie Fire have improved substantially from a tactical standpoint, what’s even more important is the mindset that Edwards has instilled in the players.
When Edwards made the commitment to Knox, he made it clear to the players that he wasn’t just passing through Galesburg for a year or two Ñ he was there to ensure the success of the program in the short and long term.
Senior Maxwell Gatyas said of Edwards, “We have a better, more qualified coaching staff and the players on the team are more aware of what it takes to win at the conference level. The improvement in the results is a direct effect of us humbling ourselves and being more educated and diligent as players.”
The intensity and focus is evident every day in practice as the Prairie Fire work just as hard and act as if every practice is a championship game, and the results on the field speak for themselves.
This is a team that has nearly doubled the goals scored per game each of the last two years (from 1.12 to 2.06 to 4.19) while cutting its opponents’ goals per game from 4.82 to 0.9 over that same span.
The team has already established themselves as the winningest Knox soccer program with 11 victories, though eight of those wins have come in Galesburg.
If the Prairie Fire are to truly establish themselves as one of the best teams in Knox history, they will have to do so on the road for five of their last six contests. Arguably their toughest outing will be their only game at home over that span, in which they host MWC favorites Lake Forest College.
If the Prairie Fire can come out of these six games having a 3-3 record, they have a legitimate chance to bring home the MWC title for the first time since 1988.
One of the oldest sports adages on how to become a champion says, “Split your games on the road and win at home”; the Prairie Fire have certainly defended their home turf. All that’s left to see is whether they can split on the road and bring home a trophy.