Sept. 10, 2009

By Kevin Scheitrum

Each step Shaun Taylor took screamed. The pain looked muffled but it was jagged and it was always, unshakably, there.

Over the course of a 90-minute match, a soccer player will take somewhere in the vicinity of 19,000 strides. Roughly 212 a minute, give or take a slide. And in the 66th minute on Sept. 1, Taylor took a break from hobbling to use step No. 12,720 – every one of those steps on an appendage less like a foot and more like a five-toed cleat-welt – to lace a shot inside the left post, evening his Boston University men’s soccer team’s match with UMass at 1-1.

BU tied that game. Taylor’s foot, on the other hand, won out. A year removed from a season in which he led the Terriers in scoring with a broken bone in the foot, the injured Taylor was knocked out of action “indefinitely,” after the game, according to BU coach Neil Roberts.

“It was disappointment for him,” Roberts said. “Coming back from last year, he was really hoping to have an injury-free year.”

So BU entered a stretch of two games against two Big East powers, in then-No. 12 Connecticut and Providence, without its top scorer. It came out with two wins. Two big wins, as the Terriers took 3-0 wins over both the Huskies and Friars. Spare parts slid into place to make up for Taylor’s loss. But no new part shone more brightly than Aaron O’Neal, who jumped up from midfield (after taking ’07 America East Rookie of the Year honors at forward) to the front line to score four goals in the two wins and help vault the Terriers to the No. 14 spot in the country.

For the Terriers, last week wasn’t just a jump in the rankings – it was a declaration of belonging by a team that’s evolved slowly over the past few years into one of the nation’s most able challengers. Not only did the Terriers knock off a team, in Connecticut, that many expected to run over BU, they came back and hammered out another non-conference win just two days later. And all this with a captain on the sidelines.

“That was the first bit of adversity we received, and we got past it,” Roberts said. “Especially against those good teams, I think that was big for the team, to say ‘OK, Shaun’s not gonna play. How can we make up for it?’”

“I just did my best to step in,” O’Neal, now a junior, said. “To just keep things simple and get what needs to be done. [Scoring] has got to be a part of everybody’s game, though. You don’t score, you don’t win. … But it’s not just me out there – it’s all the guys. We’ve been playing well together, creating opportunities.”

And so it is that the Terriers, long overshadowed by their down-the-road rivals at Boston College, have cracked the top 15. It’s early, certainly. Too early to get too excited about any rankings, Roberts said. But for a program that’s long had difficulty parlaying its location in a town widely regarded as one of America’s best places to spend four years (approximately a quarter of the city’s population consists of college students), into top-tier recruits, a boost in the national rankings sparked by a player, in O’Neal, who comes from way outside New England (Virginia Beach, Va.) is reason for optimism.

“We’ve discussed that there are three groups of teams in the country,” Roberts said. “There are elite teams, St. John’s, Connecticut, Maryland, Wake Forest, teams always there, and then there’s the next group. We’ve gotten ourselves into that group the last couple years, about 30 teams.

“How close can we get to the elite group?” he continued. “Can we break into that group? With the style of play we want to play, that’s what our challenge is. Against UConn, we’re up 1-0 at halftimes, and if we want to get up into that next level, you have to close it out against a good team, and they were able to do that. We’re not there yet, but the players believe we have the opportunity to get there.”

That’s where wins over UConn and a schedule that doesn’t let up – BU’s next to games come against Harvard (Friday), No. 4 St. John’s (Sunday) and Boston College – come in handy. With more high-profile games, especially high-profile wins, the recruiting gets easier. But in order to stay on the national scene and attract players like O’Neal, you have to first prove you can handle it up there.

“Unfortunately, recruiting is everything,” Roberts said. “This is what we’re hoping to get between Fox [TV] and playing teams like Connecticut, St. John’s and Harvard – that we can show our brand of soccer and hopefully that will bring in more players.”

Take a recruit like O’Neal. Talented, clearly. But, more importantly to Roberts’ system, flexible. Able to move from the front line to the midfield and then, in one game, slide back to forward – all to further a system that Roberts has honed over his 24 full seasons at BU. And if interchangeability is a mark of an elite program, consider the Terriers well on their way.

“The pecking order steps up a little, because the kid who’s the fourth striker becomes third striker,” Roberts said. “We lose a midfielder in Aaron, so the other guys that we want to play a little slower are on the field.

“We’re not expecting [O’Neal] to get two goals a game,” Roberts said with a laugh. “But if he wants to keep doing that, that’ll be fine.”

In the 15 years since BU ran through an undefeated regular season to take the No. 1 spot in the polls and advance to its sixth-ever trip to the NCAA second round, the Terriers have not been without success. There have been other trips to the second round in the tournament, including last year. There’ve been at-large bids when the America East crown didn’t fall toward Comm. Ave., most recently in 2007. But the Terriers haven’t yet established themselves as fixtures at the highest level of college soccer.

So this weekend, against a Harvard offense featuring Andre Akpan, a player Roberts calls “the best striker in the country,” and a St. John’s team that knocked BU out of the second round of the NCAA tournament last year, the Terriers have a chance to make the country pay attention. To maybe crack the top-10.

To, in a sense, scream.

Last week, Soccer America ran a feature about N.C. State, then unranked in the NSCAA poll, calling the Wolfpack ‘this year’s darkhorse in men’s soccer.’ Pointing to N.C. State’s experience and the question marks spilled around the rest of the ACC, along with the Wolfpack’s flourish of a finish last year – the ‘Pack brought home eight wins in their last 11 games – Paul Kennedy wrote that everything above “leaves only No. 1 North Carolina and N.C. State reasonably confident about what they have to offer.”

And when the teams meet on Saturday in Chapel Hill (7 p.m. – WATCH), both of them undefeated and both of them opening up ACC play, there’s reason to be more than reasonably confident.

If Kennedy had any doubt writing the story, N.C. State’s gone a long way toward crushing whatever reservation was left. Opening the season with a 3-1 win over Winthrop, the Wolfpack followed up with 4-0 and 1-0 wins over Denver and Columbia, respectively, to claim last weekend’s Duke Classic. On Monday, N.C. State got its reward, scaling the NSCAA poll up to No. 18.

Meanwhile, North Carolina suffered one blip between two blowouts, tying Northern Illinois, 1-1 on Sept. 4, three days after hammering UNC Asheville, 5-0, and two days before crushing Evansville, 4-0.

So, when the teams hit the field, look for a battle between an offense able to strike from anywhere – four players have scored two goals already for UNC – and a defense that’s now allowed just one tally in 270 minutes, including two matches against 2008 NCAA tourney-bound teams. And when it’s over, take a look at the winners. They may be the new favorites to take the ACC crown.


FRONT LINES – Looking forward

Another big ACC showdown awaits Friday, with No. 16 Virginia hosting No. 19 Duke and the reigning ACC Player of the Week Cole Grossman on Friday at 8 p.m.

Moving North, No. 25 Connecticut, clinging to its spot in the NSCAA poll after a rough week, takes on No. 13 Dartmouth, up four spots from No. 17 in the most recent poll, in the Nike Hypertherm Classic in Hanover, N.H. The Huskies and Big Green square off at 7 p.m. on Friday.

On Sunday, three matchups between teams near the bottom or just outside of the NSCAA rankings should see some sparks fly, as No. 22 Northwestern takes on No. 21 Tulsa, No. 17 Louisville tangles with recently unranked but always dangerous Illinois-Chicago and Cal Poly meets up with No. 11 California.


SET PIECES – Trinkets from around the country, teed-up just for you.

Wake Forest’s Sean Randolph earned a spot on SportsCenter’s Top-10 on Sunday for a diving header at Indiana that put the Deacons ahead for good. Highlights from Wake's 2-1 victory over Indiana are available here.

Michigan State goalkeeper Avery Steinlage set the NCAA consecutive shutout minutes record on Sunday, as the Spartans blanked UIC, 0-0. The streak’s now at 998:43, with the last goal scored on Steinlage coming on Oct. 15, 2008. Steinlage was named to the National Team of the Week after the milestone.

Duke’s Cole Grossman was named the Player of the Week after notching eight points in the Blue Devils’ three wins last week. His three-goal, two-assist stretch also earned him ACC Player of the Week honors along with a spot on the Soccer America Team of the Week.

Penn State’s Jason Yeisley took home Soccer America Player of the Week honors after scoring three goals and dropping in an assist in his first three games since a knee injury drove him from the field in Oct. 2007.

Teams of the Week:
Soccer America

GK – Hrafn Davidsson, BU; Defense – Ben Clack, St. John’s; Tyler Lassiter, N.C. State; Kofi Sarkodie, Akron. Midfielders – J.C. Blanks, Wis.-Green Bay; Cole Grossman, Duke; Daniel Shannon, American. Forward – Sam Arthur, South Carolina; Chris Cutshaw, Bradley; Tony Tchani, Virginia; Amani Walker, UC Irvine; Jason Yeisley, Penn State

Top Drawer Soccer
Avery Steinlage, Michigan State (GK); Aaron O’Neal, Boston University; Jason Herrick, Maryland; Joel Gustafsson, St. John's; Austin da Luz, Wake Forest; David Walker, UC Santa Barbara; Conor Chinn, San Francisco; Cole Grossman, Duke; Bryan Gaul, Bradley; Chris Korb, Akron; Phil Edginton, Louisville.


ASSISTS - Stories not written by us, but ones we wish we had.

Cat Scratches Feature: From English Prison Guard to the UK Soccer Complex
For the second straight week, CatScratches dishes out another great one. That’s two points on the year for the Kentucky SID’s. This time it’s Brent Ingram, writing about freshman Matt Lodge, who spent last summer working as a prison guard in England.

Lodge worked there during his recruitment to Kentucky, putting a few obstacles in communication between himself and head coach Ian Collins.

"I couldn't get out to call him," Lodge said. "There was a prisoner on top of the roof. They had to do what they call a lockdown. So they locked everything down and no one could leave or come in. I ended up missing the call."

Thanks to SoccerAmerica for the heads-up.

La Salle’s Quigley Fights Through Injuries To Earn Starting Role
The starting goalie at La Salle, Kyle Quigley, has gotten through four injuries – one that almost ended his hopes of playing in college and then three more once he got to La Salle – to earn the spot starting in net for the explorers.

From the story: “Kyle has been more than willing to put in the extra time in takes with treatment and rehabilitation to get back on the field,” Kerrie Eisenhauer, the team’s trainer, said. “Between his knee problems and twice breaking his arm, he has never complained about having to miss practices and games and puts his best effort into whatever I have asked him to do.”