Sunday marked what has now become a yearly tradition as NKU’s men’s soccer team hosted the University of Kentucky in their fourth exhibition match against the Wildcats.
The Norse had lost all three times before Sunday’s game. This time was different however, as the Norse came away with their first victory beating the Wildcats 1-0 in front of a raucous record crowd of 2,188 people at NKU’s Soccer Stadium.
“It feels great to finally beat them,” goalkeeper AJ Fleak said after the game.
NKU came out of the gate with a strong presence, playing more physically than the Wildcats and out hustling them to loose balls. They also out shot UK 8-3 in the first half, but with no goals to show for it, until the 34th minute when senior defender Gavin Colton took advantage of a confused Kentucky defense and quickly shot a free kick from 35 yards out over the heads of the UK defense and goalkeeper Callum Irving to score the only goal of the game.
Fleak was a huge contributor in keeping Norse in the lead, making five saves including one at the 80 minute mark when NKU fouled UK Forward Ryan Creel in the goal box and was awarded a penalty kick. One on one with Creel, Fleak dived to his right and made an incredible save to keep Creel’s kick from going into the net thus keeping the score at 1-0.
“We had games last year where it seemed one mistake cost us the game,” Fleak said. “But tonight we stayed with it and finished the job.”
The Norse defense held off several more frantic Wildcat attacks to finish of the 1-0 victory. “I was really pleased with the effort we put out tonight,” Basalyga said. “It was just really important to get out and play against each other.” While the game was only an exhibition the Norse hope that a win against a top Division I school will help the team prepare as they head into the regular season.
“It’s definitely a confidence builder,” Fleak, who missed most of last year, said. “We could really do great things in the league this year.”
Just like with most college programs these days, freshmen players will determine how well NKU will do this season. Of the 11 starters five of them are freshmen, which means there will be plenty of room to grow and improve. “We just have to be patient with them,” John Basalyga, NKU’s head coach, said. “They will make mistakes but we just have to make it through them.”
The schedule doesn’t get any easier going forward for the Norse as they start their regular season against two other formidable opponents when they travel across the river to play the Cincinnati Bearcats August 28 and then travel to Tennessee to play the Memphis Tigers on August 31.