Freshmen to the Forefront
Cornell men’s soccer supporters will have something to look forward to over the next few years, as Head Coach John Smith’s first batch of freshmen had major impacts during the 2016 season. These key contributors included Ryan Shellow, Christophe Gerlach, George Pedlow, and Brady Dickens, who have all enjoyed their first season playing together. This core group is now settled in and adjusted to life above Cayuga’s Waters.
Although the bunch seems confident in all aspects of their day-to-day lives, the adjustment to Division I soccer can be difficult and quick, not just on the pitch, but also off it.
“One thing right when we got here was getting right into the preseason. Literally our whole life was train, eat, train, eat, and sleep,” said Brady Dickens, a striker from Victor, New York.
For center midfielder Christophe Gerlach, preseason was an adjustment in the physicality department.
“I remember things that used to work in academy and high school that didn’t in the preseason,” explained Gerlach. “I used to do this crafty little turn, and here I would get tackled really hard. The upperclassmen were saying that college soccer was more physical and that I needed to protect the ball.”
Gerlach played his high school soccer at Gonzaga High School in Arlington, Virginia. He improved in this aspect as the season progressed.
“I’ve been developing a good connection with Tommy Griffin in the midfield, too,” stated Gerlach. “The older guys have been really good about showing us the ropes and the best way to approach things.”
Griffin, a junior, will be returning for his final season next year, and Gerlach seems motivated at the prospect of continuing to build off one another. However, it wasn’t just Gerlach who was forced to adjust, as the entire team was forced to make changes under a new skipper. This transition was difficult at times, yet the boys all bought into Coach Smith’s new style of play.
“Both Coach Smith and Drew have this philosophy that they are trying to implement, and it’s not just an overnight thing that we are going to pick up on and immediately start playing the way they want,” described Gerlach. “But, at the same time, they give us a lot of freedom to play attractive soccer.”
This idea is especially true in the midfield. The ability to roam and be creative is something that Gerlach hopes to thrive on throughout the next three seasons.
“I never really had good coaching, and once I got here the things that Coach Smith was telling me were very, very helpful,” added Dickens. “I was trying to implement the new style of play, and it was different, but I knew everything he had to say would be in our best interest both personally and for the team.”
In addition, Pedlow especially liked the first-year coach for the skipper’s ability to teach through asking questions.
“He made us figure it out ourselves,” said Pedlow. “Coach really knows how to connect with players on a simple level. Everything he says is very clear.”
Coach Smith uses the concept of a “three pillar” system, which allows players to have three clear goals to keep track of.
“We knew coming in, straight away, that he was a striker who played for Wigan and developed Jordan Morris, so he knows his stuff,” stated Pedlow, referring to Coach Smith’s decorated background in the attacking department, which has surely been key for Pedlow and Dickens.
Getting Their Chance
Gerlach was a mainstay in the midfield for much of 2016. He played in all 17 games for the Big Red, starting in 10 of them. He logged just under 950 minutes on the pitch, 76 of which came in the first match of the season, although he did come off of the bench.
Coach Smith and company were also comfortable with the first-year partnership of Pedlow and Dickens. As the season progressed, the two developed confidence in one another. They began learning the importance of the relationship and chemistry between an attacking pair. The game against American University was the first match in which both freshmen started together up top. Pedlow, a natural left-winger, finally got a start in a more central, striking role in the American game to complement Dickens.
“We can find each other and play through-balls really easily because we have the speed to catch onto them,” explained Pedlow. “That’s the most exciting part about playing with Brady up top — we find the gaps.”
Pedlow, a London-born player, lead all of Cornell in attempts on goal during the 2016 campaign, letting loose 35 times.
The coaching staff also made tactical changes in this same game against the Eagles, and this adjustment was a major turning point for Pedlow and Dickens merely four games into the season.
“We both started realizing where the other person was going to be on certain runs, and we started clicking together,” explained Dickens. “Ever since then, we want to be together up top.”
For the young athletes, being able to play under a coaching staff that has a proven track record when it comes to developing attackers is certainly encouraging.
“I think that the next four years, if we keep working on playing together, we can be a deadly duo up top,” stated Brady.
The Big Red spread the ball around this season and shared the love when it came to tallying goals as well. Pedlow and Dickens brought the freshmen fire upfront, each netting two goals apiece.
Coincidently, the game at American University also seems to be the point in the season in which Ryan Shellow moved into his role as starting goaltender for the remainder of the season.
“It was at American when Coach thought we had one of our worst halves all year – he wanted to get other guys some minutes – it was like one of those times where you get your opportunity to play, and you just do what you’re used to doing,” expressed Shellow.
The coaches must have enjoyed what they saw. The staff liked his leadership and interactions with the outfield players. Continuing to build relationships with the guys in front of you is an important aspect of goalkeeping, and the Florida native did just that.
“I tried to take advantage of every opportunity,” simply said Shellow.
While between the sticks, Shellow faced 201 attempts on goal and bolstered 71 saves, amassing a save percentage of 68.9%. In comparison, only half of the goalkeepers in the English Premier League have better save percentages this year, although the attacking qualities of Division I soccer are not quite on par with European professional leagues.
“At the beginning, it was kind of an open situation,” explained Shellow. “Through the practices, I was just hoping that I could perform well enough that I’d at least get the chance to get some minutes on the field.”
And get minutes he did, starting in 13 of the Big Red’s 17 matches. This accomplishment must have been particularly nice for Shellow, as the Cornell backline this season often consisted of upperclassmen with whom the young goalkeeper was constantly communicating.
2016 Overview, 2017 Outlook
While looking back over a 2016 campaign in which Cornell only recorded a single victory (1-14-2), some may be discouraged. However, when considering the future of the program, there is cause for excitement. Although the team will be losing some experienced seniors, the Big Red must head into the offseason feeling rather good about who will be returning to Berman Field next season and for years to come. Eight freshman received solid minutes under Coach Smith’s new regime, and the first-year skipper will continue to build a tough Ivy League squad in Ithaca.
Lining up games against national powerhouses put the boys to the test early this fall. A step in the right direction begins, as one scrutinizes the losses later in the season. As Conference games rolled around, anybody who saw the Big Red take the pitch on match day knew that the team was making progress both individually and as a unit. Close, and sometimes heart breaking, losses to other Ivy League opponents yielded results that surely were not desired. However, rolling more and more youth onto the field shows Smith’s confidence in Cornell’s future.
The Big Red lost four of its seven conference matches by a lone goal. This fact hints to how close the squad is to a run at a league title and a NCAA postseason berth. The team will continue to look for more positive results in the coming years and should be rewarded sooner rather than later. Returning young players with crucial experience in Ivy matches will only increase expectations, and it appears as if the freshmen of this year are excited and up for the task ahead.
Ryan Shellow, Christophe Gerlach, George Pedlow, and Brady Dickens are only a sample of the squad that will return in 2017, yet they clearly embody the mental attitude that circulates throughout the locker room. Trusting in the process and the direction in which the program is heading is crucial for this young group. Look for Cornell to be on the rise in the ranks of the Ivy League.