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SLU soccer programs getting pieces for future growth

SLU soccer programs getting pieces for future growth

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SLU mens soccer get 2nd-round bye in NCAA tournament

The St. Louis University mens soccer team members applaud as their coach, Kevin Kalish, left, is handed the mic on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, by Athletic Director Chris May after they learn they are the 10th overall seed for the NCAA Tournament at a Selection Show watch party at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis. The Billikens will face the winner between Maryland and Long Island on Sunday at Hermann Stadium. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

Long after Hermann Stadium has emptied following a St. Louis University soccer game, the entire team walks the length of the field, looking for divots to repair or other damage that needs attention after the grass has been trampled for 90 minutes or longer.

The field was resurfaced in 2018, and that attention to detail has helped maintain its condition as the focal point of a program that is seeking to return to national prominence.

The new field was the beginning of a series of improvements that have reinforced the importance of soccer for the university. It is the centerpiece of fall athletics at a school without football.

The men’s and women’s teams reached the NCAA Tournament this season, and the men are the country’s only unbeaten team entering Sunday’s second-round NCAA Tournament game against visiting Long Island at 2 p.m.

“When we look at things from a facilities perspective, it aligns with our goals as a program to be a national contender every year,” coach Kevin Kalish said. “When you look at the progress we’ve made the last four years alone, it says a lot about the university and its leadership. We not only want to recruit the best players in the country but attract the top programs to play at Hermann. It’s what you need to stay a top-20 program.”

The SLU men are in their first NCAA Tournament in seven years. The women played in the tournament for the fourth consecutive season, reaching the second round before losing. Recent developments have re-emphasized the university’s desire to remain at that level.

After the playing field was resurfaced, the practice field also was re-done and synthetic turf was added to another practice area. A locker room and training facility for soccer is near completion at the south end of Hermann. And both programs are gaining space in the recently announced O’Loughlin Family Champions Center.

“About the time Kevin was hired, we looked around and asked ‘What do we have to do to compete on a national stage?’” athletics director Chris May said. “We’ve been good. We haven’t had to apologize, but when you want to compete nationally, we looked at those pieces. We had conversations with Katie and Kevin. The field was a concern, so that was the first step.”

The soccer programs at SLU have long been a critical cog in athletics but a lull in competitive success put a damper on things. Coach Katie Shields has raised the women’s team to unprecedented heights, and Kalish is hoping to continue an upward trend.

The community has taken note. The Billikens led the country in attendance this season with an average of 2,748 fans, and Kalish is hoping to see more than 6,000 at Sunday’s game.

The facilities he sees as a coach are quite different from his playing days at SLU. When Kalish was on a Final Four team in 1998, the Billikens practiced at Forest Park on a non-regulation size field.

“It’s as good as any, I can say with 100% confidence,” he said. “I’ve been to a lot, including elite power-five schools, and the facilities and environment are as good as any in the country. There are always going to be small improvements you’ll want to make, but in terms of the core necessities, none (are better).”

Kalish sees the importance of soccer reflected at SLU in ways other than investments. School leaders from May to president Fred Pestello reflect the culture, whether it’s May traveling to be on hand for a women’s NCAA Tournament game or Pestello attending games or stopping by Kalish’s office to talk, as he did last week.

The new facilities are especially telling. The locker room complex is near completion and will include meeting rooms and training areas for soccer players. The expansion of Chaifetz Arena, which starts in the spring, will involve new office space for soccer.

It’s as if the payoff finally is coming for the program’s 10 national championships, which came between 1959 and 1973.

“When you’re playing in a tournament game and can bring 5,000 or 6,000 fans to campus, playing another top team, this is what St. Louis soccer is about,” Kalish said. “It’s what it was about for many decades before me. Our goal was to get to that level where the players could have the same experience.”

It doesn’t hurt that a new stadium for Major League Soccer is being built one mile east of campus. Kalish spoke of being able to “pick the brain” of John Hackworth, director of coaching for St. Louis City and the buzz about soccer the team has created.

SLU has not advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament since 2003, when the Billikens reached the quarterfinals. They are the No. 10 overall seed this year with hopes of making a run.

Win or lose on Sunday, the players will be on the field afterward, taking care of the property and preparing for what comes next.

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