By JACOB NORLING
WESTMONT COLLEGE WRITER
In 2019, the Westmont Men’s soccer team turned in a historically successful regular season. Behind GSAC Player of the Year Tim Heiduk and future professional keeper Lalo Delgado, the club lost just two games to NAIA opponents all season and won the GSAC regular season title for the second time in three years.
Following the end of the season, the club saw two of their best players in the program’s history graduate and leave gaping holes in the core of the program. Going into the 2020 season, Westmont head coach Dave Wolf and assistant coach Johnny Whallon sat down with the club’s new captains, Nick Ruiz and Zach Godeck, to explain the program’s intentions for the season.
The coaches told the men plain and simple “this is going to be a rebuilding year.” They would soon find out that the club would not give in so easily.
Led by Ruiz and Godeck, a Warrior defense with no Heiduk or Delgado allowed just two goals to GSAC opponents all season. The club rode a magical defensive surge to their second consecutive GSAC Championship, culminating on a 90th minute goal during the GSAC Championship game that gave the squad a 2-1 victory.
A rebuilding year led to a 7-2-1 record, a conference title, and the honor of hosting an NAIA Opening Round tournament.
And now it’s the fall of 2021. Ruiz has graduated. So has All-GSAC midfielder Jona Romero, who led the 2020 club in assists, and forward Tyler Young, who led the club in goals over the past two seasons.
Following their departure, Coach Wolf has brought in 11 freshmen.
So the question has been asked again, “Is this year the supposed rebuild?”
“I think conventional wisdom would say that most successful college soccer teams are heavy in upper classmen talent,” said Westmont head coach Dave Wolf, who is entering his 31st season at the helm. “However, conventional wisdom was proven wrong last season, and I’ll be the first one to say I didn’t see it coming.
“I’m going to give this group the proper opportunity to do whatever it is they’re going to do. I think my approach will certainly be different this season after what ended up happening last year.”
If the club hopes to compete for a third consecutive GSAC championship, the club’s defense will need to remain a strength. Luckily for Wolf, trusted veterans make up the core of the club’s backfield.
Following Delgado’s departure, the goalkeeper position was once thought to be an area of uncertainty for the club going into 2020. Instead, Swedish transfer Mans Ingvarson arrived on campus, won the starting job and was recognized with an NAIA All-American honorable mention after posting a GSAC-best 0.50 GAA.
“I think of all the surprises last year, Mans was the biggest one,” noted Wolf. “After moving on from a keeper who was arguably the finest in the history of the program, bringing in an unknown player was going to be difficult. However, very quickly there was chemistry developed with Mans and he proved himself to be a stellar goalkeeper.
“The other surprise for us was that Abraham Arteaga turned out to be a whole lot better than we thought. Abraham came in as a distant third on the depth chart and very quickly moved into the number two spot. He’s a name a lot of people might not know, but we feel fortunate having multiple goalkeepers that make us feel confident.”
The men in front of the keepers have been perhaps the club’s biggest strength in each of the past two championship seasons. Fortunately for the club, center back Zach Godeck is returning for a fifth season.
“Zach is a great foundation to build our defense upon,” said Wolf. “If you look at the defensive success we’ve had with our center backs the past two years: it was Tim and Zach, then it was Nick and Zach, and the common denominator there is Zach.”
Next in line to be Godeck’s co-captain of the backfield is junior left-footer Michael Palmer, who has started nearly every game of his first two seasons as the club’s left back.
“We’re planning on giving Michael Palmer the opportunity to be that next partner,” assured Wolf. “Of course there is some risk moving a guy who has played in one spot practically every game he’s worn a Westmont uniform, but he is an extremely talented player. We’re hoping his talent on the field and his leadership skills help lock down our defense.
“On the outside, junior Mason Ginni got a hold of that right back position last season and looked really good. We also have a talented player in junior Justin Nakaoka who will play back there a lot. Defensively our biggest question is whether sophomore Landon Amaral is ready to take over that left back position.
“He got more and more time last year and by the end we were pretty sure he’d be the answer there at the start of this season. Landon brings an ability to serve a ball and we expect him to be heavily involved in our attack from back there.”
In the midfield, the club hopes to see production from a few key members of the returning squad.
“We have a bunch of guys who are hybrids in the midfield,” pointed out Wolf. “Aldo Becerril, a sophomore, is a guy we see as the most natural fit there. Aldo got to play a lot of minutes last year and produced consistently as a starter. We expect him to take another step forward.
“Another returning player who played key minutes last year is senior Memo Mendoza. I think Memo really came into himself last season and something that didn’t go unnoticed is how often we won games with him in that position.
“And then there’s sophomore Daniel Tuscano, who missed a good part of last season rehabilitating but then started our final postseason game. We see him as an all-action box-to-box type of player who could play the six for us. I think the six has been a defensive-minded position for us recently with Nick Ruiz sitting back and holding our defensive line. While that benefited us in the past, I do see that role becoming a bit more offensive.”
Leading the way for the club’s attack will be Daniel’s older brother, senior striker Samuel Tuscano. The older Tuscano was named to the All-GSAC team last season after scoring five goals in 10 matches.
“Sam has demonstrated the ability to be a dangerous attacker for years now,” said Wolf. “It would be helpful if we weren’t so reliant on him during the start of the season like we were last year.
“My hope is that we have multiple threats and that other teams have to be glued to numerous players. If we can develop a dangerous attacker or two that can take some double teams off of Sam, it will enable us to get on the scoreboard more often.”
Freshman Connor Lynch figures to join the Warrior forwards up front early and often.
“Connor Lynch is already scoring goals in training for us,” said Wolf. “And you have to score in training before you can score in the game. He looks college ready in his frame and in his talent level.”
When asked what players may be flying under the radar that are poised to make an impact, Wolf said, “Junior Micah Nelson has a tremendous amount of upside. When you look back at this season, do not be surprised when you realize he had himself a great year.
“Senior Wyatt Babineau is someone we’re going to put in a few different roles as well, and he’s going to have numerous opportunities to contribute. And then Braeden Pryor is someone who is really gifted. We need him to make the jump from being potential to being a producer.”
In order for the club to compete at the top of the conference, numerous players will have to play up to their highest potential, and perhaps more than usual as pointed out by Coach Wolf.
“We recognize that Westmont is historically a big game for everybody that plays us. The target that is historically on us grew last year because we won two trophies. Our guys understand all that comes with the shirt they represent.”
Wolf smiled when asked about his expectations and instead shifted the focus to his hopes, given how his expectations haven’t always been accurate.
“The hope, and our goal, is to arrive as the best version of us,” offered Wolf. “I don’t want to put any expectations on this group because we know from experience, things are not always what they seem.”
Jacob Norling is a Westmont College sports information assistant.