Four times out of the past six years, the Saint Martin’s University men’s soccer team won three or fewer matches the entire season. This year’s Saints squad were able to match win that total in just five days.
“I think it just comes from the leadership of this team. We have a couple new captains and a lot of senior players. The culture of the team is a lot different than it was in the past,” said senior forward Brandon Madsen about SMU’s newfound success. “The culture has changed and that’s really what’s amped us up. We know we can win.”
Behind a high-powered offense, led by Great Northwest Athletic Conference scoring leader Madsen and invaluable senior leadership, spearheaded by vocal midfielder Sebastian Navarro, the Saints concluded its non-conference slate with a record of 5-1-1, capped by a gritty 3-2 win over visiting Lubbock Christian.
“We’ve probably never have done that before,” said head coach Rob Walker, who is in his 13th season at the helm, about the Saints’ hot start.
SMU is coming off a solid campaign last year where the team broke a streak of eight consecutive losing seasons by finishing a respectable 9-9. The Saints finished 2018 by winning their final three matches and have appeared to parlay that success into this year as they look to post the program’s first winning season since 2009 when SMU went 11-7 overall and 6-2 in GNAC play.
“In 2009, we weren’t as good in the pre-season and then made our run during conference (play), but every year is different,” Walker said. “We’ve probably played a strength of schedule in some past years that was maybe a little better than this, but this is a good team.”
Through the first seven games, the Saints have put up some gaudy stats, led by the record-setting Madsen, who paces the GNAC with nine goals this year, which is six more than any other player in the conference. But finding the back of the net is what Madsen has constantly done during his two-plus years in Lacey.
During Saint Martin’s 4-0 shutout of Pacific, Madsen scored a pair of goals to become the all-team leading scorer in program history, surpassing Xan Nixon’s 30 career goals, a record which stood since 2011.
Making the feat more impressive is the fact that Madsen needed a little over two years to accomplish the record.
“It’s been amazing. It’s a great feeling to beat the record. Xan Nixon, the guy who had the record before me, was a really good player,” said Madsen, who played his first year of college soccer at Seattle University before transferring to Saint Martin’s. “It’s just an honor to come to this school and be able to score goals.”
After scoring a school-record 16 goals in 2017 and 13 last year, which featured a single-season record four game-winning goals, Madsen is well on pace to shatter his own school record. He added two goals during SMU’s 2-0 shutout win over Academy of Art in San Francisco, a match which opened the team’s grueling three games in five days stretch before notching a pair of goals in a 4-1 road win over Stanislaus State.
Madsen then added two more in the Saints’ win over Lubbock Christian, pushing his seasonal point total to 19.
“We are all trying to motivate each other to work as hard as we can,” Madsen said. “It goes all the way down from the top of the team to our bench. Everyone is working to make this team better.”
After opening the season with a 2-2 tie against Regis, SMU posted back-to-back shutouts, defeating Adams State (5-0) before besting Pacific.
The Saints’ only setback during their preseason schedule was a 1-0 loss at California State University – Dominquez Hills. They rebounded from that defeat by winning three straight matches.
“Obviously, you never want to play three games in five days,” Walker said, “but it’s part of the super-regional deal and it will mean a lot down the road if we do well in conference.”
In addition to Madsen and Navarro, Walker also called out the stellar play of juniors Nick Phillips and Jose Marquez and senior Collin LaBranche, who is an Olympia High School graduate, during SMU’s early season success.
“I’m really happy with what they’ve done so far this season,” Walker said.
The Saints will get a much-deserved break before heading to Burnaby, British Columbia to play defending GNAC champion Simon Fraser on October 3 in their GNAC opener. They will then play in Bellingham on October 5 against Western Washington University before returning home on October 10 to host Montana State Billings.
“Simon Fraser is going to be the best team (in conference),” Walker said. “They’re picked to be first. Western is going to be good. I think Billings is going to make a run. It’s always so close in our conference. There’s no bad team in the conference.”