By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications, (503) 370-6110
SALEM, Ore. -- The Willamette University men's soccer team is off to a 10-1-1 start, including 7-0-0 and first place in the Northwest Conference standings. One reason the Bearcats have been so strong over the first 12 games of the season is the quality of play Willamette has received from key returning players who helped tie for the NWC championship last fall and competed in the 2017 NCAA Division III Tournament.
Willamette is ranked #3 in the West Region of NCAA Division III by the United Soccer Coaches. This year, the Bearcats have lost only to nearby rival Corban University, which is also 10-1-1 and currently ranked #15 in the NAIA National Poll.
Key returning players for the Willamette are forwards Nicholas Ballenger (Jr., Salem, OR/West Salem HS), and Quinn Mello-Bastida (Sr., San Jose, CA/Valley Christian HS/U. of Portland), as well as defender Max Berner-Hays (So., Seattle, WA/Ballard HS) and goalkeeper Mason Kelliher (Jr., GK, Wellington, N.Z./Wellington College). Last year, Berner-Hays was named First Team All-NWC and NWC Freshman of the Year, while Ballenger earned Second Team All-NWC honors. Mello-Bastida was a valuable player on the attack last fall, while Kelliher played in 19 games with 15 starts as a forward. Willamette finished 2017 at 10-7-2 overall, 9-3-2 in the NWC.
This year, Berner-Hays and Ballenger have scored seven goals apiece and are tied with Joe Sammartino from Pacific Lutheran University for first place in the NWC in goal scoring. Ballenger also leads the NWC with 18 total points. Mello-Bastida ranks first in the NWC with six assists. Kelliher, who moved from forward back to goalkeeper this fall, ranks first in the conference with a 0.66 goals against average.
For the Bearcats on offense, the combined efforts of Berner-Hays, Ballenger and Mello-Bastida have resulted in 15 goals and 12 assists. That's a sizable chunk of Willamette's 29 goals and 27 assists overall. In addition, Ballenger has taken 38 shots, while Berner-Hays has recorded 29 shots. Including 11 shots by Mello-Bastida, the trio has contributed 78 shots, including 38 shots on goal.
Meanwhile, Kelliher has registered 44 saves while playing in all 12 games, including 10 starts. He has achieved four solo shutouts and one shared shutout. He owns a record of 9-1-1 in the nets this year.
It's not just the goal scoring and goals against average that stand out for Willamette's key players. It's also their high level of play throughout each game, verbal leadership and leading by example. They bring an extra level of quality each time they step onto the field.
The leadership of Berner-Hays, Ballenger, Mello-Bastida and Kellier has encouraged solid play from other members of the team. Hikaru Ichigi (Jr., M, Kobe, Japan/Fujiigakuen Sangawa) has scored three goals -- all game-winner -- including the overtime winner in a 3-2 victory at Linfield College on Sat., Oct. 6. Maxwell McKee (Sr., M, Coronado, CA/Coronado HS), Omar Dominguez Pascasio (So., M/D, Madras, OR/Madras HS) and Josh Schneider each have scored two goals. The Bearcats make substitutions pretty frequently, especially with games on back-to-back days. A total of 11 players have scored at least one goal this season.
Willamette's defense also has performed at a high level in most games. The Bearcats had allowed just 11 goals this season and have frequently made it difficult to complete crosses into the box. Berner-Hays in particular has been a difficult force for opponents to deal with in the air -- at both ends of the field.
Sometimes, the leadership provided by WU's key players hepe the team claim a close win. The Bearcats have prevailed in four one-goal games, including the overtime win at Linfield and a 4-3 win over Wisconsin Lutheran College on Sept. 9. IN that game, Willamette trailed 3-0 in the second half, but scored three goals in the final 20:01 of regulation and won the game on a goal by McKee with 1:31 left in the first overtime. Ballenger and Berner-Hays also scored during the rally. The game against Wisconsin Lutheran was Willamette's third game in four days and fifth game in 10 days.
Six wins by the Bearcats this year have been by two or more goals, but it's also great to see the team play well in close games and be able to battle from behind when needed. Steady play from the Bearcats' returning leaders has made a positive difference.