The four seniors on the Spalding University men’s soccer team are no strangers to the postseason, but they hope to reach into unfamiliar territory this month.
Over the past four years, the current senior class has left a mark on the program by winning two regular-season St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships and qualifying for the conference tournament three times, including the 2019 league playoffs that start Wednesday night. Now, they’re eager to take the next step and claim the school’s first postseason SLIAC title, which would earn Spalding its first trip to the NCAA Division III Tournament.
They’ll begin that pursuit at 6 p.m. Wednesday, when second-seeded Spalding (12-4-3, 6-2-1 conference) hosts No. 3 Greenville (10-8, 6-3) in a SLIAC Tournament semifinal at the new Spalding Athletic Complex.
“I think everybody is motivated,” said senior forward and Spalding career goals leader Kornell Hilliard, who is the United Soccer Coaches’ D-III National Player of the Week after recording back-to-back hat tricks. “I think you can feel it as soon as you step onto the pitch for practice. Everybody is focused. Everybody knows that what we have on the line is something special and something that we can accomplish as a group for the first time in history.”
That Spalding is back in the SLIAC Tournament is a notable achievement in itself. It marks the first time the Golden Eagles have appeared in the event in back-to-back years, and it’ll be the fifth consecutive SLIAC Tournament game that Spalding has hosted (though the first ever at the new fields complex).
Spalding won its SLIAC semifinal games in 2016 and ’18 but lost both times in the title game. The seniors are hoping to take the next step this week.
“We’ve hit a bunch of our goals – going undefeated in conference (in 2016), winning the regular season (in ’16 and ’18), ” senior defender Kasim Alsalman said. “Now we’re ready for our next trip, and that’s winning the conference tournament and making it to the national tournament. That’s the next goal we want to hit before we graduate. … That would mean a lot. That would cap our career at Spalding and really set us apart.”
Coach Adam Boyer said seniors Hilliard, Alsalman, Erfan Rezai and Adam Frith, as well as senior student assistant coach Joe Railey, have already built an impressive legacy. They have the potential this postseason to keep adding on.
“They’ve hung a couple banners, and here they are in the postseason again, two games away from the national tournament,” Boyer said. “It’s pretty remarkable to see the success that they’ve had. Some of the guys have produced statistically, and some of the guys have produced by having good character and being a great teammate and leading by example.
“The five of them in total are all great leaders.”
Rezai said he thinks this year’s Spalding team is the most talented he’s been a part of, and Railey said he is proud that the seniors have “helped pioneer” the program to the status it’s reached as a two-time regular-season champion and consistent contender in the SLIAC Tournament.
Frith said that when he arrived at Spalding, the primary goal of the team was just to qualify for the conference playoffs.
“Now making it is expected,” he said. “We want to go further. That’s really cool to see that transition. (Making the national tournament) is the goal now. We’ve checked off a lot of things in our career. But we haven’t checked off that one thing. It would be awesome to go out senior year with that as the last box that’s checked. I really think we’re going to do it, too.”
No other senior and probably no other player in Spalding soccer history has had a bigger impact on the field than the Hilliard, whose 61 career goals and 148 career points are Spalding records.
Hilliard, who once scored 52 goals in a season at Fern Creek High School, leads the SLIAC by a wide margin with 17 goals and 41 total points this season, and his seven assists trail only teammate Mirza Uragak (eight) in the conference in that category.
Hilliard is tied for 12th in all of NCAA D-III in both goals and points a year. He was also among the national leaders all season in 2018, when he had 18 goals, eight assists and 44 points. He even had a bicycle kick goal in 2018 that was featured nationally on ESPN’s “Top Plays”
“The statistics he’s put up are absurd,” Boyer said. “They’ll probably never be topped.”
Additionally, Hilliard has played in every Spalding game the last four seasons – “a pretty remarkable” feat for a physical player who is constantly marked by opposing defenses, Boyer said. Given Hilliard’s durability and production, it’s no surprise that Spalding has won two regular-season titles during his collegiate career and is back in the postseason again.
“Kornell has had an incredible career,” Boyer said.
Hilliard said he’s proud to have become the top scorer in program history and that he’s never missed a game. He said he’ll cherish his career at Spalding and the time he’s spent with the other seniors.
“These are my guys that I’ll talk to every day, even when I’m out of school,” he said. “They’ve helped me so much through life and especially soccer. Coach did a great job recruiting these guys, and they’ve been like my brothers. It’s going to be great to know that these guys are there, and it’s going to be amazing to finish this season off with them.”