The year after a college program reaches the NCAA Tournament can be uncomfortable, especially if it's not a regular occurrence. Expectations of a repeat effort rise, while conference foes suddenly are hungry to dethrone the defending champions.
After losing in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference playoffs in his first two years at the helm of the Mavs, head coach Micky Blythe finally conquered Penn State-Behrend, beat his own five-year-plan timeline and returned Medaille to the D-3 tourney, an achievement accomplished six times during previous coach Dan Krzyzanowicz's tenure (2002-2014).
Despite a first-round loss to Otterbein, the 2017 experience was an invaluable taste for an impeccably young team that knows it now cannot be complacent in its own conference; the AMCC remains one of the weakest in Division III, but at least it's improving.
A brutal non-conference schedule - crafted intentionally by Blythe to prepare his team for the postseason - saw losses to John Carroll and Lycoming, two fellow NCAA Tournament teams last year, and SUNYAC contender Brockport - but Medaille's upperclassmen now have a sense for the bigger picture.
"The teams we're playing [in non-conference] are much stronger than the teams we'll play in conference," midfielder Mitchell Ali admitted after the loss to Lycoming. "It just gets us ready.
"Last year when we went to Otterbein we did well against 10th in the country, and considering our conference isn't the strongest - Behrend is very good - once we get to those big games, these are the teams they're very similar to, these are the teams that are going to go far."
Even with Medaille's spectacular 2017, the lack of athletic scholarships in NCAA Division III prompted some of the team's standouts to seek new challenges.
Departing were seven starters with eligibility remaining: Sam Beesley, an exceptional center back; Kyle Ferguson, Beesley's looming partner; Lachlan Wilkinson, a goal-scoring machine in 2016; Given Holy Gbode, a one-man wrecking ball, at times, with loads of upside; Pablo Ballesteros, a tidy midfielder; James Lang, an injury prone yet gifted midfielder; and goalkeeper Callum Christie, a postseason hero for his penalty kick exploits against Behrend.
It's easy to point to this roster turnover and, with a glance at the Mavs' 4-4-2 overall record, 1-1-1 in the AMCC, claim the side is rebuilding. That's simply not the case.
"The results have been disappointing, but I don't think it's reflective completely of the talent we've got," Blythe posited. "Every year we do seem to start with a number of new players, with people transferring or leaving for a new opportunities. That's always going to be the nature of it in Division III, with people choosing higher levels and scholarships. They're all getting their degrees and we're happy with that."
According to Ali, the Mavs are actually better than last year.
"I think this is the best team we've got so far in the last three years," the England native claimed. "Our defense now is so much more solid; we've got the defenders - that's what we lost out on last year - with me going center back in the last two biggest games of the season."
[Related: Look back at in-depth Medaille primers from 2016 and 2017]
Stellar junior class
It's easy to forget Ali, Anthony Marafioti, Matt Burke and Levi Bojang are only juniors. The quartet was thrown into the fire, to varying degrees, as freshmen in 2015, with game experience the best - and sometimes most painful - teacher of the college game in America.
From the onset, Ali was the Mavs' emotional leader, their midfield engine whose outspoken personality was a necessary for a team learning one game at a time.
"Mitchell has worked himself into a position where whatever team he's part of, he's extremely influential," Blythe said. "It's just the nature of the man ... I'm delighted we've got him [and the other three] as juniors, who are genuine leaders, upperclassman leaders. That class is outstanding."
Marafioti, a natural forward, accepted defensive roles in his first two years at Medaille, which allowed him to play heavy minutes - first at center back as a freshman, then as a marauding right back last year.
Saddled with injuries so far in 2018, the pacy Aussie will finally be allowed to flourish in his natural role, likely in the latter half of conference play and into the postseason.
Although he's undersized, Englishman Burke is a rock for Medaille, covering plenty of ground, breaking up opposing attacks and boasting one of the softest touches on the team. He's a keen distributor, too.
Bojang, the quietest of the junior quartet in his first two years, has improved the most - the right back has channeled his athletic gifts into more comprehensive development as a footballer. The England native is more confident on the ball, assertive in joining the attack and competent enough defensively to not be a liability.
Leave it to Beever
Lachlan Beever is a freshman in eligibility only. The 20-year-old Australian newcomer, deployed as a target forward for much of his first season in America, has been a revelation for Blythe; "Lachy" is a man among boys who - almost without fail - will either beat a defender on the dribble with surprising power, hold possession with a defender on his back or just draw a foul.
It's frightening to think that Beever, with a team-high nine goals in 10 games, isn't best suited as a forward.
"He's actually a very good center back, and his second position is center mid," Ali noted.
"I think he's in the No. 9 position out of necessity at the minute due to injuries rather than where he's going to end up," Blythe confirmed. "He's done a cracking job up there, hasn't he? As for now, Beever is a fantastic option, he's worked his socks off - he's a very honest player."
"I'm just happy to help the team out where I'm needed," Beever said. "As long as I'm on the park I'm having fun, and I'm really enjoying that.
"But having a run up top is always good fun; it's nice to get a run up there," he added, a little sheepishly.
How did Medaille land a gem in Beever? Credit a member of that stellar junior class.
"Anthony Marafioti is a friend from back home, we played together [growing up]," Beever explained. "He told me all about [Medaille], he told me he's had a great experience. The setup that Medaille offers where I can get a solid education and I'm doing the thing I love, playing football day in and day out, essentially acting like a professional but getting the education as a backup. You can't ask for much more."
[Related: Follow the Buffalo News soccer blog on Twitter, @BN_Soccer]
A rebuilt defense
In the last two years, Blythe has opted to roll with a five-man defense in the playoffs, a more conservative formation that pulled Ali from center mid to center back to ensure the Mavs didn't concede easily.
The departures of Beesley and Ferguson meant there were holes to fill immediately. Enter Rahim Melon, a well-traveled, 25-year-old center back who played previously for Genesee Community College, and Albert Morales, a Barcelona native with prototypical size for the position, as well as Beever, who might be cut out for the role later in the season.
"[With a] 20-year-old freshman [in Beever] and 25-year-old senior [in Melon], it's not like they're coming over and having to learn men's football," Ali noted. "They've probably been playing it since they were 16."
The over-age newcomers, which include winger Jack Napier, a 21-year-old freshman, and transfer goalkeeper Jonny Pitts, can help mitigate the intimidating adjustment to a new country, living arrangement, schedule and academic expectations that these foreign imports face.
There have been growing pains - a surprising 3-2 AMCC loss to Mount Aloysius among them - but the side's prospects haven't dimmed significantly, as the remainder of the AMCC schedule - beginning with D'Youville, at 7:15 p.m. Oct. 3 - softens considerably.
"I'm really pleased with the incoming class," said Blythe, who knows the newcomers' improvement should continue as the season progresses. "We've finally got a foothold after winning the AMCC last year, [and] we can recruit quality players."
Newcomers to know
Four more newcomers are already key contributors for the Mavs. Goalkeeper - a problem position for Medaille since now-assistant coach Brian Arcara graduated - has been filled by junior transfer Jonny Pitts, who's mixed stellar outings with a few worrying outliers.
With a goals-against average of 1.18 and four shutouts to his name, though, the Englishman isn't in serious danger of losing his role.
Although he's buried on the stat sheet with no points in nine games, but Spanish freshman Joaquin Tenes is a menace for several reasons: he can be an asset at outside back or at holding midfield, he's fearless in the air and relentless in tackles, and he shows promising technical ability.
Throw in Carlos Espana, a lanky starting striker still adjusting to the physicality of the college game, and Jack Napier, a fire hydrant of a winger with a streak of tenacity, to prove that Medaille has options offensively beyond Beever.
Unless the Mavs falter unexpectedly, the final six conference games before playoffs will be key in learning to avoid defensive lapses, showing a little more ruthlessness in front of goal and increasing the comfort of the long list of newcomers still adjusting to the American game.
*Note: The Medaille Athletics Department has been working with a local developer to establish its own sports facilities at Buffalo Color Park, at Elk and Lee streets in South Buffalo.
After some hiccups with partners in the early stages, college president Ken Macur thought the men's and women's soccer teams might be able to use the facility before the close of the 2018 fall season, but it's more likely to be ready for spring sports.
At present, the Medaille men's and women's soccer teams play their home games at Dobson Field on the campus of D'Youville College (4th Street, just off of Porter Avenue).
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