Quietly but undeniably, the Mater Dei Knights have established themselves as one of the winningest small-school boys soccer programs in the metro-east.
The Knights haven’t had a losing season in eight years under 29-year-old coach James Arnold, who learned a thing or two about soccer during his playing career at Edwardsville High.
What’s missing from the Knights’ resume is a signature season at a school more accustomed to success from its basketball and volleyball programs.
Mater Dei has earned two regional titles (2011, 2012) and advanced to the sectional championship in 2011, but Arnold and the Knights are looking for more this season, and they could be primed for a deep run in Class 1A.
“It’s a fun little group,” Arnold said. “We have 10 seniors who have put in their work. They’re playing with a little chip on their shoulder. We’re just out there to win. Losing is not an option; we’re not thinking about that. And we’ve got the right group to do it.”
The Knights improved to 8-2 on Tuesday with a 7-0 victory over visiting Altamont. It was their seventh consecutive win since a 2-1 loss to Highland on Aug. 28 in Freeburg. Mater Dei’s only other defeat came 2-0 to Springfield, which placed third in Class 2A last year.
“We’ve played some tougher teams that have had our number in the past, and we’re actually winning those games,” said Arnold, referring to recent victories over Gibault (3-2) and Highland (2-1). “Gibault has had our number. We don’t usually play them in season; if we ever saw them, we saw them in a tournament. But they usually take it to us pretty good.”
Arnold said the loss to Springfield helped build confidence.
“We played them two years in a row on our schedule,” Arnold said. “The best team we ever had was 16-7-2 (in 2011) and we made it as far as the sectional-championship game. Springfield beat us 7-3 (that year). So, looking at it this year and knowing what they did last year, coming out of that game 2-0, yeah, it’s a loss, but it’s also an eye-opener for us. I would like a rematch.”
Senior forward/midfielder Cade Breed leads the Knights with 12 goals and nine assists. Senior forward Blake Beckmann has nine goals.
“Blake is finally putting some things together,” Arnold said. “The last couple of years, he’s probably put in seven goals total. Most of his goals were probably assisted by Cade. Blake’s getting a lot of head-ball goals this year. He’s about 6-foot-2 and he gets in the air well. Cade’s maybe 5-9, and he’s beating the wing defender and cutting in on people.
“Blake has some strength and the ability to finish, but Cade is very technical and he’s got the proper touch. He can find the back of the net with his left or right foot. When he’s out on the wing, he’s serving the ball in. That’s why he’s got nine assists.”
Arnold also credited senior center back Nick Pollmann, senior forward Benny Thompson – who didn’t play last season – senior goalie Garrett Boeckmann and an undersized group of midfielders led by juniors Hunter Wiegmann and Alex Loepker and sophomore Tyler Hitpas.
“We probably have the shortest three center midfielders in the history of soccer,” Arnold said with a chuckle. “I think the average height there is 5-foot-4. But they’re technical; they get in the way and they stop attacks. Loepker is our little technician. He plays through-ball after through-ball and can hit a shot. We’ve just got a lot going for us right now.”
Mater Dei faces a demanding second-half schedule that includes contests against Althoff, Waterloo, Alton and Belleville West.
“We don’t play the pushover schedule,” Arnold said. “We do try to load up. It only helps in the end. Even if you get beat, you learn from it. (But) teams aren’t going to come out and just destroy us. We’re finally past losing games 6-0. It’s taken eight years to say that.”
Arnold played under coach Mark Heiderscheid at Edwardsville, graduating in 2004. He then played at McKendree and graduated in 2008.
“I was not a stats-getter,” Arnold said. “As a matter of fact, I’m probably a better coach than I ever was a player. Coach Heiderscheid was great. We still have a good relationship.”
Gagen out for year
Althoff senior Donovan Gagen will be sidelined for the remainder of the season with a torn quadriceps muscle. Crusaders coach Joe Burchett said Gagen had surgery last week.
“He’s been at the last couple of games on crutches,” Burchett said. “He’s done. No football kicking and no soccer playing.”
Burchett said Gagen, who had six goals and four assists, was dealing with the injury all summer and had been seeing a doctor. But the injury never healed, and finally became a tear. Gagen had been the kicker for the football team since his freshman year.
“Most of the time, he seemed fine,” Burchett said. “I guess it got to the point where it actually tore. I don’t think there’s one specific time where he did it.
“We lose a kid who was going to score probably 25, 30 goals, and we lose a senior. It’s been different. Jimmy Monken (seven goals, three assists) has done a good job stepping up, and Justin Robinson (nine goals, four assists) is still leading us in goals from the midfield spot. But it’s been challenging.”
Althoff (4-5-1) also has been without senior Will Dall (ankle injury). Burchett said Dall could return next week when the Crusaders play Alton and Mater Dei.
Collinsville stayed hot Tuesday with a 3-1 win over visiting Edwardsville in a battle of previously undefeated teams. The Kahoks are 7-1 overall and 3-0 in the Southwestern Conference.
Senior forward Luis De Anda recorded a hat trick and is among the metro-east leaders in goals with 11. De Anda trails Waterloo’s Kane Osterhage (16) and Ben Huels (13), Alton’s Eric Ferenbach (13) and Mater Dei’s Breed. Columbia’s Ryan Gudeman also has 11 goals.
News-Democrat Boys Soccer Rankings
Rankings for metro-east teams; voting by area coaches and News-Democrat staff. First-place votes are in parentheses.
Boys soccer rankings (all classes)
Also receiving votes: Columbia (7-0-1); Mater Dei (8-2); Gibault (5-7); Triad (4-5-1); Mascoutah (6-4).