The awards continue to pile up for the Ashland University men’s soccer team after its third straight banner season. The Eagles were 13-5-3 this season and won their third straight GLIAC regular season championship. They also claimed first-ever GLIAC Tournament championship in their inaugural season at Ferguson Field and advanced to the NCAA Playoffs for the third straight year.
The Eagles had four players named to the Daktronics All-Midwest Region teams.
Two of these players, the team captains, have brought an international flavor to the Ashland team and campus this year.
On a given weekend, students across the campus of Ashland University discuss how their favorite sports teams are performing, where they are going to watch games, and play armchair coach in their dorm rooms.
But not many are locking in on teams like Everton FC, Manchester United or Liverpool FC. English football is not a typical destination for an American college student. However, Ashland students do check in on the Ashland men’s soccer team, at least according to team captains James Livingston and Kenny Hewitt.
“You walk around in Convo and people say, 'how’d you do?' or 'good game,'" Livingston said. “There’s a level of interest.”
“Everyone wants Ashland to do well, regardless of what sport it is,” said Hewitt.
It also doesn’t hurt that the Eagles have the most successful program in the GLIAC over the last three years, which has been the most successful stretch in program history. Hewitt and Livingston, who both hail from England, entered the program in 2008 when the Eagles turned an 0-17-1 record in 2007 into a 15-4-2 record and a berth in the NCAA playoffs.
“I don’t think there was much respect for soccer after that season,” said Livingston, pointing out that some of the seniors on this year’s squad played on that 0-17-1 team.
This three-year run of success coincides with the additions of Hewitt and Livingston to the program. Both are midfielders, Hewitt on the wing and Livingston in the central midfield, and both were named captains in the preseason.
“I’ve got two captains that are always going to be on the field leading vocally and by their play,” said first-year head coach Jon Freeman. “There’s an expectation with the captains. They don’t have the luxury of having an off-day and not being mentally in it. There’s an extra responsibility. Both have been good coming prepared and focused. Our minds have been in the right place.”
Freeman helped bring the pair to the Eagles, having spent five seasons as the program’s assistant coach from 2004-08.
He’s seen a greater awareness of leadership from both players from the time they entered the program to where they are now as the leaders of the GLIAC’s top team.
“When you come from overseas, there’s going to be an adjustment period and I think they both got a little more of an understanding of how the guys click mentally,” Freeman said. “Everyone needs to be handled in a different manner. Both have matured a lot in recognizing that aspect of player management.”
The players have also seen Freeman adjust to his role as the head of the program.
“When we first came into the program he was more of a guide. He was there on a friendlier basis. Now he’s the boss and you’ve got to respect the boss,” said Livingston. “He’s making bold decisions and they’ve worked for us. If you look at our season at the moment compared to last season, we’re doing just as well.”
While Livingston and Hewitt both come from England (Hewitt is from Brighton, England; Livingston comes from Aughton, England) and both play in the midfield, they lead and play with very different styles.
Livingston handles the central midfield duties, keeping the game flowing for Ashland and distributing the ball to the wings, where Hewitt sends crosses in front of net. Hewitt has three goals this season with a team-high five assists. He has 17 assists in his career, which ties him for third all-time in Ashland University history.
“Kenny plays with passion and an exuberance that you want everyone to play with,” said Freeman. “There’s a confidence that he exudes and because of that, he’s always a tightly marked guy by the opposition.”
Livingston has one goal and three assists on the season as the sparkplug for the Ashland University attack. Earlier this season, Freeman called Livingston an All-American-caliber player.
As captains and leaders, the players could not be more different. Hewitt is the player leading the warm-ups and cheering on teammates, while Livingston talks to players one-on-one.
“Kenny’s got some of that ‘rah-rah’ in him that rallies the troops,” said Freeman. “James is a little different. He’s a guy that goes up to individual players and says the right thing at the right time. He’s a good man manager because of that. Kenny and James balance each other out really well.”
Said Livingston: “Kenny does a lot of the leading in training and he’s very vocal. He leads by example. For me on the pitch it’s not so much about making yourself heard.”
The pair did not expect to be named captains by Freeman, but have taken their roles and run with them.
“It’s not something you solely work toward,” said Hewitt. “You just concentrate on the team and working toward those goals. It’s a good group to help guide and give good advice. It’s an honor, simple as that.”
In both players’ third year in the program and playing soccer in the United States, they have been able to adjust to the American college schedule and the type of player they see when playing here.
Hewitt said that before coming here he never had experienced “two-a-day” practices. He also mentioned that discussions with the referee can be much shorter and less confrontational.
“You have to be more disciplined, more aware of what you say because it’s going to get noticed,” he said.
Livingston talked about the American players themselves and the competition they have to face in practice and on the field on a daily basis.
“The American lads are a lot fitter,” he said. “They’re athletes, a lot bigger, stronger, quicker. That’s what you have to get used to, those lads that just don’t stop running.”
Most of the Ashland University squad is made up of American players, with the exception of five who are from England. According to Freeman, the incorporation of the English players to the squad has been a benefit for all.
“Every player is unique and offers a different language on the field with regards to how they play,” he said. “It’s interesting to bring them together and see what happens because I think we’ve got a strong team. The American kids have learned from the English boys and the English boys have learned from the American kids and that’s important.”