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Sweet Home's Noah Keem, Euro imports lift Daemen from the depths

Noah Keem scored 62 goals in a sterling high school career at Sweet Home, so it seemed a little unusual to see him at center back and fullback as a freshman for the Daemen Wildcats.

After all, Daemen had scored a conference-low 17 goals in 2016 - the Wildcats' second season, officially, in NCAA Division II - with exactly zero goals returning this fall, as leading scorer Ali Shawish (eight goals) transferred to Buffalo State.

But given head coach Bobby McColl's far-reaching and deep recruiting class, a move to the defensive third was what the Wildcats needed from Keem, as the talent going forward outweighed that of a suspect defense.

Keem's older brother and teammate, Joey, was forced to red-shirt for his sophomore season due to a knee injury, leaving a gaping hole in the back four.

For someone accustomed to being a go-to scorer, Keem handled the new responsibilities with a maturity beyond his years.

"I'll just do whatever the team needs me to do to help them win and help them compete, so if that means me playing 'D,' or striker or outside mid, I don't mind," said the versatile freshman, who's not a stranger to being moved around the pitch.

Under Sweet Home head coach Scott Martin, the talisman previously accepted a role as a holding midfielder - albeit one with the freedom to surge forward at will - midway through his final high school season, just two years after playing one year with the Empire United Development Academy as a center back.

"He's been great," McColl said of his prized Western New York recruit. "We put him in [several] positions because he can play everywhere. Sometimes it's not the most enjoyable for him, like when he has to go play center back or outside back. He always does it with no complaint and always has a good attitude."

Daemen teammates shine goalscorer Noah Keem's shoes after a goal against Pitt-Johnstown. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

As McColl has found some answers defensively over the course of the season, Keem has been allowed to push farther forward over the last seven games - either as an advanced winger or a true striker. His seven goals lead the Wildcats, as do his 18 points, and he's scored in six of his last seven outings.

Although the Wildcats missed the East Coast Conference postseason in 2017, McColl's crew boasts six wins on the year - the most a Daemen team has produced since 2006. Since the program's birth in 2000, the Amherst-based side has never won more than seven games.

One game, a road match against ECC foe Molloy on Oct. 28, remains on the schedule.

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*THRILLING OFFENSE: At least when they're going forward with the ball, the Daemen men entertain. Passes move quickly - in either one or two touches - and the Wildcats "switch fields," or change the point of attack, more effortlessly than some NCAA Division I teams can muster. Wingers drift into open space, and strikers make sudden diagonal runs away from the ball. It's pretty soccer.

The 24-member recruiting class has certainly played a role in allowing McColl a blank slate to mold an offensive identity, especially the six newcomers hailing from Sweden and Norway, who haven't been beaten over the head with the American style of kick and run.

"They like getting the ball down more and playing, and I like that," described Keem of the Eastern European additions. "Getting the ball over the top sometimes is okay, but we're pretty good at knocking the ball around."

Niklas Ringdahl Bohlin, from Fjaras, Sweden, has been the gem of the recruiting class and the embodiment of Daemen's style. A Division I talent, the No. 23 patrols the middle of the park, winning tackles with ferocity, turning smartly away from pressure with the ball and rarely scuffing a pass. He's a leader, too, a trait which McColl is quick to stress.

Niklas Ringdahl Bohlin might be the best of Daemen's legion of freshmen. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

"[Ringdahl Bohlin] has been huge for us," the second-year head coach said. "He came in right away and showed his leadership qualities on and off the field," said McColl. "He's an excellent player, but he's also a good leader off the field - he has a good attitude. So we made him a captain as a freshman, which you don't see very often, so that tells you everything as far as what we think about him."

"It comes natural, I guess," explained Ringdahl Bohlin of his leadership traits. "I keep on doing what I've always done - it didn't change when I became a captain. I like taking space on the field, make sure everyone is settled outside of the field."

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*ADJUSTMENT FOR THE EUROS: Although Ringdahl Bohlin hit the ground running at Daemen, it wasn't as easy for his fellow imports; Norwegians Brage Wiik, Kristian Aadnoy and Sander Johannessen, Swedes Samuel Lockman and Victor Lanje, Northern Irishman Ross Stewart and German Finn Krueger have all started seven or more matches. Scot Craig Buchanan plays an important role off the bench.

"The first game of the season was an eye opener for them because the physicality and speed of the play is just so much different," recalled McColl of the 3-1 loss to LeMoyne, in which Daemen conceded three goals in the first 13 minutes.

"For them, back home it's a lot slower game - there's more emphasis on the tactical side of it, you've got more time on the ball and they've got thrown into the deep end in the first game of the season against LeMoyne, who are a very big, physical team. Especially for our defensive folks, more so, just getting used to that."

Daemen freshman Samuel Lockman settles the ball on the left wing. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

At least personally, Ringdahl Bohlin was a dissenting voice.

"[It's] not really that much of a difference," said the captain, who's in America to combine athletics with academics as well as work on his English. "I played with seniors for the last four or five years back home in Sweden, so I'm kind of used to getting physical."

How do these Europeans wind up in Amherst? McColl works closely with a recruiting company with strong Eastern European ties.

"It started at my time at Roberts, but obviously that was on the women's side, but same company that we're working with - we have a good connection," he explained. "We were able to look after some players quite well and they had a good experience at Roberts, which helped when we came here and I connected with them again. They agreed us to send us more players."

The biggest danger is that a team so diverse can easily form cliques, and that's something both the captain Ringdahl Bohlin and McColl have been intentional about avoiding.

Samuel Lockman, with the ball, turns away from pressure by Pitt-Johnstown. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

"It's been important for us to become a team outside of the field. We've been hanging out around campus and really became close friends off the field. During practice, just adapt to the other guys and get into it as quick as possible."

"I think off the field it's been pretty good," McColl added. "That was probably our biggest concern, with guys coming from all over, what that's going to look like, how they're going to mix, and how that's going to translate onto the field. So far, so good."

*DEFENSIVE WOES: Simply put, Daemen has been a mess defensively. The Wildcats have conceded three or more goals in a whopping 10 games - allowing 43 total - which, to some degree, is understandable given Joey Keem's absence and a back line with minimal college experience.

There are building blocks, as Wiik and Victor Lanje have stood out at times, but the side is dearly missing a big, physical ball winner in the defensive third. But, experience will surely help.

Victor Lanje picks his head up to find a teammate to pass to. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

"It's just getting the experience of winning games," McColl said. "Sometimes that's learning how to hold onto a lead, sometimes that's learning how to deal with a lot of pressure toward the end of a game, because we put ourselves in good positions a lot of times this season, but a little bit of inexperience has hurt us ... but if we show up to play, we can compete with anybody.

*BN SOCCER LIKES: Freshman winger Anthony Cupello, a graduate of Greece Arcadia in Rochester, boasts a team-high seven assists - tied for third in the ECC - and is the kind of eager attacker that makes the offense hum. He's willing to combine, can whip in crosses from the wing and is dangerous in open space. You can tell he's one of the players, as well as No. 9-type Aadnoy, that Ringdahl Bohlin looks for in the final third.

*FORGING AHEAD: Considering the program won just two games in each of the two previous seasons, Daemen has every reason to be optimistic about the next three years, provided the team stays relatively intact and addresses the leaky back line.

"We're having to be patient; the results maybe haven't been there, but the performances have been much, much better from last year," McColl admitted. "And the boys are just getting used to college soccer, and some of them are getting used to America, but we're making progress, so that's good."




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