John Rootes and the Lynn Fighting Knights men’s soccer team are no strangers to winning, especially when it comes to even numbered years. Lynn has been the national champion twice under Rootes's tenure as head coach, taking home titles in both 2012 and 2014.
They entered this season with a lot of question marks. Gone was their go-to goal scorer Chris Hellman. A mere five seniors donned the roster, and there were quite a few new faces.
“We have a lot of new players this year,” Rootes said. “I don’t think we had one returning starter in the first eleven in the first game. We’re still a work in progress, so as we go along, we will see how we develop. At the beginning of the season, especially, you really don’t know how you’re comparing to everybody because it’s like apples and oranges. You don’t know how your opponents are, and you don’t really even know how good you are. We certainly will be tested this weekend when we have to play Spring Hill and Pfeiffer. We'll found out real quickly how good we are.”
Still, the Fighting Knights had talent and began the season ranked No. 25 in the nation. It lasted merely a week. They skyrocketed up 21 spots, landing at No. 4 in the Sept. 6 NSCAA Coaches Poll after they swept through the Olive Garden Invitational. It was an impressive five day span that saw them pick up three wins by outscoring their opponents a combined 17-2.
“We’re very pleased that we started off on a good foot. We were a little worried, playing three games in five days, and how we would react to that. As a coach, I would prefer not to have shot up to No. 4 because that just puts a big target on our back, I prefer to sneak up on people,” Rootes said.
The third win of the week, a 2-1 double-overtime thriller, gave Rootes his 400th career win in his illustrious coaching career. It brings his record to an astounding 116-31-10 record to an astounding 116-31-10 at the helm of the Fighting Knights, including those championships.
“It’s kind of a two-edged sword,” Rootes said. “You’re always pleased to get to milestones like that. Honestly, I didn’t even know it until we were driving back from Hunstville and our Athletic Communications Director Chad Beattie tweeted it. But when you get to numbers like 400, you realize you are closer to the end than the beginning, so you get a little sense of urgency.”
Scoring the game winning goal in that victory over Alabama-Hunstville was transfer Jack Watson. In fact, it was the third time in three games Watson had scored the go-ahead, game-deciding goal at the tournament, a feat that nabbed him Lee/Olive Garden Invitational MVP honors.
“We lost Chris Hellman last year to the MLS,” Rootes said. “He had been our reliable goal scorer for the past three seasons, so we were nervous coming into this season about who was going to fill that role that Chris had. So we’re obviously very pleased that Jack has done a great job, I think it’s fair to say that he may be doing better than Chris did as a forward thus far this year.”
A hat trick. Five goals in three days. An assist. Watson — who was sidelined with injury for all of 2015 — dominated the tournament and got off to a very fast -- and much anticipated -- start on the season. He caught the nation’s eye as he took home National Soccer Coaches Association College Player of the Week and Sunshine State Conference Offensive Player honors to start the season.
“I put a lot of long hours in the rehab,” Watson said. “I’m real happy to be playing again and be back on the pitch. The goals and the awards are a just a plus, I’m just happy to be back with the team and out there with the lads.”
Watson is no stranger to the spotlight. The Dublin, Ireland native began his career up north at Mercyhurst, where he would become a dominant offensive threat and goal scorer. Watson took home All-PSAC First Team honors and the PSAC Offensive Player of the Year while adding on All-Region and All-American nods during an outstanding sophomore campaign. He then headed down south to the Sunshine State Conference to take his talents to Boca Raton.
“One of the factors is the weather,” Watson said. “In terms of the competition, up North it isn’t as easy as some people think it is. You still have high standards and great players up there. I’m not really worried about opponents down here. I think as a team we worry more about ourselves. We know we are facing four really tough opponents here in the next few days. Once we concentrate on what we do well, we will be fine.”
He then tore that ACL, sidelining him for the entirety of the 2015 season. It was something Watson struggled with, but he knew that patience and a hard offseason of rehab would get him back on the pitch once again.
“It was pretty tough,” Watson said of his 2015 season. “The reason I came over from Ireland was to play. I knew in the long run I would benefit from it and come back stronger with my knee. But it’s tough watching from the sidelines. At the moment, it seems like it’s paying off.”
“There’s a lot of new guys on the team. We got to preseason, and we bonded and gelled pretty well,” Watson said of his teammates, 'the lads' as he refers to them. “We just want to do the best that we can, and obviously we got off to a hot start winning three on the road. We still have a lot of seniors in the locker room that are able to tell these younger guys what the expectations are. I think that Lynn being such a good program, a lot of new players know coming in that the expectations are pretty high.”
Lynn will be put to the test starting this weekend. They are set to face Spring Hill on Friday and then Pfeiffer — the defending men’s soccer national champion — on Sunday in the Wyndham Deerfield Beach Resort Soccer Classic.
“We haven’t seen Pfeiffer,” Rootes said. “They have their whole team pretty much returning from their championship season, and we know that they are the measuring stick. Right now, they are the best team in the country. If we can compete with them, we can compete with anyone in our conference.”
That conference — the SSC — appears to be one of the toughest in the nation so far on this young season. After their matchup with Pfeiffer, they open up conference play on the road against Palm Beach Atlantic and Saint Leo before coming home to face Barry. All three teams are ranked or receiving votes in the nation’s top 25.
“We knew going into the season, I told Chad that this was probably the toughest schedule we have ever put together,” Rootes said. “We were going to have to sink or swim right away. If we are able to survive it and make it through, it will make us that much stronger. Every single team is very, very good. The fact that we are ranked is just that much more motivation for them. It will certainly put the pressure on us.”