The difference between the Creighton soccer team that struggled in the midseason and the one that has not lost in nine straight games can be summed up in one three-letter word: Fun.
The Bluejays weren't having a lot of that when they lost three of four games and tied another during a five-game stretch in September. They were letting expectations — both their own and their fans' — weigh them down.
“That stretch was troubling because everyone wanted to do so well,” Creighton senior Andrew Ribeiro said. “I had a turnaround — I forget which game it was — when we just said, 'Let's not worry about all the other things and let's just play soccer.'
“Now, when we go out there, it's like a bunch of friends looking to have fun. There's no deeper thought than that. It's just go out and do it.”
The approach has produced a nine-match unbeaten streak heading into Friday's 3 p.m. semifinal meeting with Drake at the Missouri Valley tournament. A victory in the match at Peoria, Ill., would advance the No. 12 Bluejays into Sunday's championship game.
The hot streak allowed Creighton to claim the Valley's regular-season championship. More important, it rescued a season that appeared on the brink of slipping away after losses to Old Dominion, Saint Louis and Tulsa in a four-game stretch that left the Bluejays with a 5-3-1 record as the season approached its midpoint.
For a team trying to duplicate last year's run to the final four, the slow start was hardly acceptable, even as they replaced seven starters.
“We were forcing the game a little bit instead of trying to let it come to us,” midfielder Brent Kallman said. “We just needed to relax a little bit, especially on the offensive side. Defensively, we needed to have everyone on the same page.
In coach Elmar Bolowich's mind, the big difference between the Creighton team that opened the season in August and the one that takes the field in Peoria on Friday is stability.
“I experimented early in the season, moving guys around,” Bolowich said. “I tried some things I thought would be comfortable for some individual players only to find out it wasn't. It was trial and error, but you have to do that or you won't have the answers.
“I subjected the team to some pitfalls, but that was the only way to do it when you only have a two-week preseason. If we had six weeks of preseason like they do in Europe, things would have been a lot clearer by the time you start playing.”
Bolowich laughed when asked if any of his moves backfired to the point where he asked himself, “Why did I do that?”
“This wasn't random fishing,” he said. “We had thought behind what we were doing but some things didn't work out. Sometimes the player wasn't comfortable at that spot. Sometimes it just wasn't the right combination for the team.”
He cited the example of using Jose Gomez, Bruno Castro and Jose Ribas on the same forward line.
“On paper, it was exciting and the thought process was that if we had those guys up high, we'd have a chance to score a ton of goals and create a ton of chances,” he said. “But it wasn't happening because they're all similar-type players. We had to change to something else.”
The Bluejays now have a set lineup. They have developed an identity. They are healthy, with several players, including goalkeeper Alex Bolowich, back at full speed. Bolowich, who faced most of the difficult teams early in the season, fractured a bone in his elbow in an Oct. 9 win at Princeton.
Jeff Gal stepped in and allowed just one goal in Creighton's last five games. He'll get the start against Drake, coach Bolowich said.
“Jeff hasn't done anything that would leave us thinking we need to make a change,” the coach said. “We'll continue to watch both of them in practice and make decisions based on that.
“Alex did a great job early in the season, and if he's called upon, I know he could do a great job from here on out.”
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