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Rough first year in CAA leaves Stony Brook men’s soccer with questions to answer

Sebastian Rojek (left), Rondell Payne (middle) and Trausti Birgisson (right) forces a turnover against Yale on Thursday, Sept. 20. The three upperclassmen were key players on the 2022 Stony Brook men’s soccer team. MACKENZIE YADDAW/THE STATESMAN

After hosting a playoff game in the 2021 America East Men’s Soccer Tournament, the Stony Brook men’s soccer team was looking for more in 2022. Now in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), the Seawolves were going to have to surprise many doubters to repeat that success. 

Coming into this past season, Stony Brook had significant holes to fill. Losses in leadership, talent and production from the 2021 team led to low expectations from the outside world. Being newcomers in a stronger conference did not help matters, either. In the preseason poll, Stony Brook was projected to finish in eighth place in the CAA standings. 

As fate would have it, that prediction was precise. The team did not handle its new competition or its offseason losses well, finishing the 2022 season 5-11 overall and 3-6 in conference play. The Seawolves missed the CAA postseason tournament by three points.

“There are more high-level teams in this conference,” forward Jonas Bičkus said in an interview with The Statesman. “The America East was a good conference, but in the CAA, every team is hard to play against.”

Though the Seawolves faced low expectations from others, defender and team captain Sebastian Rojek said that they still had high hopes for themselves. Unfortunately, those hopes did not come to fruition.

“We were far off the mark from what we wanted to achieve,” Rojek said. “We wanted to make the playoffs and at least try to win a championship this year.”

Early in the season, Stony Brook seemed to be trending in the right direction. The team jumped out to a 3-1 start after winning three in a row. During this streak, the Seawolves upset Hofstra by beating them 2-1 in their first-ever CAA match. 

After securing their third win on Sept. 6, the Seawolves would not win or draw another game until Oct. 8. The six-game losing streak in that period was the worst stretch Stony Brook endured since the 2008 season. During that losing streak, the Seawolves were shut out five times.

Bičkus said that the six-game stretch took a toll on the team’s confidence.

“When you lose games consecutively, it’s hard to stay positive,” Bičkus said. “That affected us, and it’s hard to tell why it happened.”

Head coach Ryan Anatol agreed with Bičkus’ point, saying that the team lost significant confidence for the rest of the season during that stretch. 

“Confidence is a big thing,” Anatol said. “When you look at the college soccer season there are so many games in a short period that momentum is important.”

Four of those six losses were conference games, which sank the team in the CAA standings. The Seawolves were shutout and outshot in all of those four contests.

“We were in those games,” Anatol said. “Defensively, we had to be stronger, more resilient and give up fewer chances. You could look at it and say we could have scored more goals, but it becomes difficult when you’re chasing the game.”

After snapping the aforementioned losing streak, the Seawolves fell into another one. They lost their next four games and were eliminated from playoff contention with a loss to UNC Wilmington.

Struggles on the road also helped bury Stony Brook in 2022. The team finished the season 1-7 away from Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium and lost every single road conference game.

“If you look at any league around the world, teams have more success at home than they do on the road,” Anatol said. “It’s the challenges of sleeping in a different bed, traveling and playing on grass compared to turf surfaces. The way soccer is played around the country is very different.”

The Seawolves did end their season on a high note, beating playoff-bound Drexel 2-1 in their season finale. This win gave them a .500 record at home in 2022.

As the record and streaks imply, Stony Brook did not do much of anything particularly well in 2022. The team struggled on both sides of the ball. Amongst their CAA competitors, the Seawolves were near the bottom in most statistical categories. Offensively, the Seawolves were in last place in goals per game (1.00), shots taken (166) and points scored (49). 

Defensively, the Seawolves posted the fewest shutouts, as they only blanked their opponents once this season. They allowed 1.63 goals per game, which was the second-worst average in the CAA. 

Stony Brook’s strength this season was its goaltending. Stony Brook led the CAA in saves per game with 4.31. Goalkeepers Edmond Kaiser and Curtis Copenhaver combined to make 69 saves, which was the second-most in the conference. 

Kaiser led the conference with 4.56 saves per game. While Kaiser was out with an injury, Copenhaver filled in valiantly. He averaged four saves per game during that stretch, which also led the conference. As a team, the Seawolves led the CAA in total saves during the regular season.

“We have two strong goalkeepers,” Anatol said. “Moving forward, that’s a strong area for us, but it’s important that they don’t have to do too much work.”

The effort of the Seawolves’ shot stoppers was only good for one single shutout, which was the program’s lowest number since 1999. It took Stony Brook 11 games to secure its first clean sheet of the season.

Coming off of his 2021 America East Rookie of the Year campaign, Bičkus was the Seawolves’ best player in 2022. He led the team with six goals, three assists and 15 total points. He also led the team in shots (33) and shots on goal (17). He ranked eighth in the conference in goals and points and tenth in shots attempted. The sophomore’s performance this year earned him All-CAA Third Team honors.

Bičkus’ 15 points were the most by a Stony Brook player in a season since 2018, when forward Jarred Dass and midfielder Serge Gamwanya matched that point tally.

Another bright spot for the Seawolves was freshman defender Jon Jelercic. He had his coming out party in the team’s win against Charleston, tallying both a goal and an assist. That performance earned Jelercic the CAA Rookie of the Week award, making him the first Seawolf to ever earn the honor.

Jelercic’s strong individual performance led to him being named to the CAA All-Rookie Team. He became the 26th player in program history to make an All-Rookie team. 

Jelercic was able to accomplish this despite a lack of playing time. He played in just 11 games and was only on the field for 695 out of a possible 990 minutes.

“There were a number of times earlier in the season where he wasn’t getting many minutes,” Rojek said. “It was something that was frustrating him, but he put his head down and worked hard. This made it that he began being included in the team sheet.”

Out of five freshmen, Jelercic was the only one to score a goal in 2022. He started in nine of his 11 appearances.

This offseason is slated to bring even more changes to the Seawolves’ roster. Midfielders Trausti Birgisson and Wilber Gomez, alongside defenders Rondell Payne and Evan Peters, have run out of NCAA eligibility. They are graduating and can not return to the Seawolves.

Payne and Peters have been regular starters on the backline in recent years, while Birgisson has been one of the team’s leading facilitators throughout his career. Birgisson led the team in assists in 2021. 

“Roster turnover is the hard part of being a college coach,” Anatol said. “It presents the challenge of replacing guys that have been a big part of the program.”

Stony Brook currently has six seniors on their roster. Those players have an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, they are not guaranteed to return, and their returns remain to be confirmed publicly. 

Copenhaver and Kaiser are both seniors, too. Over his four years, Kaiser has already etched his name into Stony Brook’s record book. He ranks sixth all-time in goalkeeper wins (15) and ninth in goals allowed per game (1.53). 

Rojek is another senior with a remaining year of eligibility. He has appeared in 47 games for the Seawolves, starting in 43 of them. Rojek, Birgisson and midfielder Bas van Beckhoven were the only players to appear in all 16 games for Stony Brook.

“It’s a conversation we have had ongoing for the past year,” Anatol said. “There’s a lot of factors that come into play. I would expect within the next few weeks to know who is deciding to return and move on.”

Forward Kameron Blaise is one senior who is definitely not returning. He entered the transfer portal in November and can not return to Stony Brook after doing so. Blaise became the first Seawolf to ever win CAA Player of the Week after scoring goals against Saint Peter’s and Hofstra.

Even with all of those losses, Stony Brook will still have a core of solid players returning for the 2023 season. Midfielder Trevor Harrison was the team’s second-leading scorer and shot-taker. Midfielder Amit Magoz also made an impact for the Seawolves this year, as he co-led the team in assists with three. Forward Moses Bakabulindi is a fast player who scored two goals in 2022. 

Other young players such as Bičkus, Jelercic, van Beckhoven, midfielder Bruno Penney and defender Iker Alvarado all have multiple years of eligibility left for Stony Brook.

Although the season did not meet expectations in the eyes of Stony Brook’s eyes, Anatol remains optimistic.

“It was a fine line between winning and losing most games,” Anatol said. “The guys are not satisfied. We talked about the goal now of not just getting in the playoffs, but being one of the best teams in the conference.”

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About the Contributor
Alex Streinger, Assistant Sports Editor
Alex Streinger is an Assistant Sports Editor of The Statesman. He is a junior majoring in journalism and minoring in political science. He is the beat reporter of the Stony Brook men’s soccer and nationally-ranked women’s lacrosse teams. He interns at Movendi International, the largest independent global social movement for development through alcohol prevention.
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