Defense wins championships. It’s a cliche that has been used by sports fans for decades.
In college soccer, that tends to be the case. The past 10 national champions have shut out opponents at least 10 times throughout the season, with six of those national champions recording shutouts in over half of their games.
For Coastal Carolina men’s soccer, the future is bright for their starting back line as they will have just one senior in the starting back four — Nicholas Itopoulos.
Itopoulos, originally from Durban, South Africa, came to Coastal as a transfer from Salem International University, a Division II program in West Virginia.
“I wanted to play at a higher level and Coastal felt like the best option for me,” Itopoulos said. “When I had my interview, it seemed like Coach Russell and I shared similar views on the direction we wanted to go and I felt like I could fit in here.”
Fellow teammate and junior center back Oliver Gerbig came to Coastal from Taiwan for the same reasons as Itopoulos.
“I wanted a greater challenge,” Gerbig said. “I had a really good connection with Coach Russell as he was one of the very few coaches to take a chance on me.”
As a freshman in 2018, Gerbig played in all 14 games, eventually working his way into the starting lineup and becoming a regular starter towards the end of the 2018 season. However, the season in 2018 was one that Chanticleer fans and players would like to forget. It was the first time in nine years that the team had missed out on the NCAA tournament.
Gerbig used that year as motivation.
“When you come to a program like Coastal, who is a consistent participant in the NCAA Tournament, you don’t want to be on the team that missed out on playing in the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “Unfortunately, that was the case my freshman year last year and I made a promise to myself that that would never happen again while I am here.”
Returning to the NCAA Tournament was top priority for the Chanticleers going into the 2019 season. And while the team made a magical run to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, it didn’t come without its challenges.
Early in the season, the back line lost a key player in senior Paul Odenhahl, who missed the rest of the year after hurting his foot. This made Gerbig, only a sophomore, the most experienced coastal player on defense.
“You could definitely see in the preseason games that we were still trying to find our feet,” Gerbig said. “A lot of the new guys that we had were trying to adjust to the pace of the game.”
One of those 16 new players that were on the 2019 CCU roster was freshman Kasper Skraep from Denmark.
“I knew that for me to play soccer at a professional level, I had a better chance of coming over here and getting that experience,” Skraep said. “The mixture of education, playing soccer and the opportunity to travel is just what I needed to succeed.”
While the back line for the Coastal Carolina defense was young, they still had a lot of experience. Despite missing out on the tournament in the previous season, Gerbig's style of play garnered looks from the Hong Kong national team. And prior to his arrival in Conway, Skraep had an appearance on the Denmark national team.
“Recruiting some of the top players, whether they are going to be freshmen or if they are transferring from another institution, is a big deal for us,” said CCU assistant head coach Kyle Russell. “You have Marcelo who is in a pushover and was the top defender on his team his freshman year in 2018. Nick was a captain at his Division II school. Oliver had a steep learning curve playing with our experience back line last season and is now more comfortable. Kasper plays like a man. He does things that most 19-year old soccer players don’t do.”
Despite a rough preseason, which saw Coastal fall to Duke and Clemson by two goals in both matches, Chanticleers started out the 2019 regular season strong. The team went out west and defeated No. 22 Oregon State and No. 20 Portland to open the 2019 campaign before dropping an overtime heartbreaker to No. 21 Charlotte.
For players like Marcelo Lage, who came from George Washington as a true freshman, it was certainly a change of pace.
“Marcelo, having previously come from a smaller school like George Washington, hadn’t really played the big opponents that Coastal has played,” Gerbig said. “That was definitely a change for not just him, but a lot of the new guys. A higher level of competition."
Lage, who started all 17 games as a freshman for the Colonial, talked about the boost in confidence that the first few games had on him.
“I started the first four games of the season and the first two games against Portland and Oregon State were good confidence boosters as we started 2-0 against two Top 25 teams on the road,” he said.
Then came a rough stretch. After the loss to Charlotte, Coastal went to Morgantown to take on No. 19 West Virginia. The Chants were up 1-0 in the 35th minute when the Mountaineers battered the Chants, scoring three goals in a span of 81 seconds. The Chants ended up losing the match 5-2.
While the team went unbeaten in their next three matches, an even tougher stretch started. The Chants went five straight games without a win as well as without a goal. Between their lone goal in their 1-1 draw versus VCU on Sep. 25 and their first goal in a 4-2 win over Appalachian State on Oct. 19, the Chanticleers went close to 570 minutes without scoring.
Before that goal against App State, the Chants went 0-4-2, losing all four games by a score of 1-0. All of those goals in the 1-0 losses were scored in the second half or in overtime.
“That stretch where we losing close games was frustrating because we knew most of the games we should of won,” Lage said. “Those games were difficult ones because we were frustrated that we weren’t getting results.”
It took a four-goal first half performance by the Chants that eventually led to a 4-2 win over Appalachian State on Oct. 19 to change the trajectory of the season.
The Chants went on a 6-1-1 run before falling in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to SMU in double overtime. Two of those wins were shutouts.
During that end of the season run by the Chants, the team scored 18 goals in eight games. Three of those goals were scored by defenders. Lage scored his lone goal of the year in a 2-0 win over Howard on Nov. 3.
For Lage, that goal meant a lot to him considering that he had worked his way back to the starting lineup after not getting many minutes in the middle of the season.
“It was difficult to play the first four games of the season and see my minutes decrease in the middle of the season,” he said. “However, it made me mentally stronger to be ready when they needed me. In training every day, I went in with a positive attitude and trained with high intensity and played in the second half of the season again.”
Skraep notched two goals on the year, coming up in CCU’s 3-2 double overtime win over North Carolina State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I rarely score, so for me, that goal was amazing,” Skraep said. “While NC State was a better team that second half, I felt that that goal had helped swing momentum back to our side.”
The season for the Chants ended against a tough Southern Methodist team in double overtime. The Chants final three games of the season saw them go into double overtime in each of those three games, including going to penalty shootout in the Sun Belt Championship game versus Georgia State.
All eyes are now on the off-season as the players look to better themselves and prepare for the 2020 season.
“One thing I could work on to become a better defender in 2020 is become faster and quicker in order to help me in one on one situations,” Lage said.
Lage, as well as his counterparts, has high hopes for this Coastal team going into the next two years.
“This Coastal team has the ability make a College Cup in the next two years,” he said.
While the season did have a lot of positives for the defense, especially towards the end of the season, there is always room for improvement.
“Personally, I felt that a strength of mine was my communication, but that is something I can always improve on,” Itopoulos said. “A weakness I had that I definitely need to improve on is what I do with the ball when I am faced with pressure. I have to get better with my decision-making when I have the ball.”
Gerbig said the team “just needs to be more consistent”.
“If you want to be a great team, you have to be consistent,” he said. “Personally, I’d like to close out games better and I want to be able to keep our teams spirits up and make them comfortable even under times of pressure.”
Instead of going back home to Denmark, Skraep is staying stateside this summer to play for USL League Two side Reading United AC in Pennsylvania. This wouldn’t be the first time that Reading has taken up a Coastal Carolina player.
From 2016 to 2018, forward Frantzdy Pierrot, who is now with Guingamp of the French second division, played there.
Coastal finished the year with a record of 10-8-3, the 10th consecutive season with at least 10 wins. For the third time in four years, the Chanticleers won the Sun Belt Tournament.
With all four members of the back line returning, the experience that these four men gained during the 2019 season and will gain in the off-season will surely be beneficial to the program when the 2020 season begins this August.
Skraep and Gerbig are two of the three field players that played in all 21 games this past season. Originally, Skraep didn’t play a lot in the preseason but to his relief, he was able to make his way into the starting lineup.
“In my end of the season meeting with coach Docking, he told me that he was a bit disappointed in my performance at first, which is why I only played about 20-30 minutes a game in the preseason matches,” Skraep said. “Thankfully I was able to work hard and work my way into the starting lineup and play the role I needed to play for our team to be successful.”