WASHINGTON, D.C. - Since the Catholic University men's soccer team returned from England, its season has been jolly good.
The No. 19 Cardinals (11-1-1, 2-0 LC) are on a 12-game unbeaten streak, including victories in their past six contests. They host league rival Susquehanna (4-8, 0-2) on Saturday at Carlini Field. Action gets underway at 1 p.m.
Travis Beauchamp, in his 13th season as Catholic's head coach, knew he had a strong nucleus of players returning after last year's 11-6-1 performance.
"What I like about this group is that they're probably a little more player-led, which always creates something special," Beauchamp said. "Our veteran guys know when to let their guard down and have a bit of fun. They also know when it's time to get to work."
How good have the Cardinals been? They've scored a conference-high 35 goals while allowing a league-low eight. The only match they haven't won since dropping the opener in late August was a 0-0 tie at No. 14 Mary Washington. Of their 11 victories, eight have been by shutout.
Junior goalkeeper Jack Long has allowed just six goals while recording 37 saves (.860 save percentage) and blanking the opposition six times. The backline defense features junior defenseman Nick Battaglia and seniors Mike Narzikul, Ryan Kennedy and Mitch Ford.
Narzikul said the group benefits from playing together for three years.
"It's been really easy to feed off each other because we know how each of us plays," he said. "We complement one another well. We have an unspoken amount of communication that you can only develop by playing and practicing a ton of times together."
Narzikul remembers back to 2016 when the Cards finished 6-11-1.
"We came from winning one game in conference my freshman year to where we are now. It's been a really special group this season."
Beauchamp agrees with his first-team All-Landmark and third-team All-Region defender: "It's fun when you're winning, but there's a reason we're on the right side of a lot of these games. It's because of the way the guys, from the top down, have approached this season.
"I think our leaders, the seniors and the junior class are just really good in how they approach things."
After their scoreless tie against Mary Washington, the Cardinals rattled off five one-goal victories. The fortitude to win tight games manifests an ability to play hard through the final whistle. All the while knowing that one lapse in intensity could spell defeat.
Beauchamp hopes matches such as these are preparing his team for what they'll face in the Landmark Tournament and perhaps beyond.
"The pace of those games in the last 15 to 30 minutes has put us under a lot of pressure," Beauchamp said. "They've become sort of a jumbled mess. We've been able to grind those games out. From that standpoint, they've had sort of a postseason feel. At least, I hope it's preparing us for that."
One of Catholic's biggest wins during that stretch came on Sept. 25 at Salisbury, 3-2. The Sea Gulls entered on a six-game unbeaten streak that included five victories.
"They were rolling," Beauchamp said. "They had just come off a draw against Messiah, a perennial power in the Division III soccer world. We knew it was going to be a tough game."
Ben Alexander displayed his superb ball handling skills in the 12th minute by surging from just beyond midfield past three defenders and the goalie to score. Paul Egan added another unassisted tally to make it 2-0. He scored again to increase the advantage to 3-1 before Salisbury added a late goal.
The Cardinals and Sea Gulls have been playing each other since their days as Capital Athletic Conference rivals.
"It's always good to win at Salisbury," Beauchamp said. "They're an old CAC foe. For years, we were kind of a punching bag for those guys. It's nice to be more competitive with them now and have a chance to win some of these games."
Much of Catholic's offensive prowess can be attributed to its leading scorers, Alexander and Darius Siahpoosh. Both are dynamic players who can create offensive space, find open teammates and score.
Alexander, a sophomore striker who transferred last season from the University of Kentucky, has 22 points on 10 goals and two assists. Five of his tallies were game winners.
In the Cardinals' 3-2 victory over 2018 NCAA Tournament quarterfinalist Eastern on Oct. 1, Alexander helped seal the win in the 72nd minute after stealing the ball from a defender and beating the goalie one-on-one. His effort helped him earn his second career Landmark Athlete of the Week honor.
Siahpoosh is a sophomore midfielder with six goals and five assists (17 points). He came to Brookland from James Madison University. Alexander was named 2016 Baltimore Sun Player of the Year. Siahpoosh was similarly honored in 2017 for being Montgomery County, Maryland's top player.
"Those guys can just sort of create something out of nothing," Beauchamp said. "We've seen that a couple of times this season."
Narzikul has also admired Siahpoosh and Alexander's play.
"Coach is always looking to add really good players, and that's what the two of them are."
Egan, a native of Dublin, Ireland who played his senior year (2017) at The Heights School in Potomac, Md., is Catholic's third leading scorer (4 goals, 2 assists). Nelson Zimmerman is tied for the team lead with five assists.
"Our offense has done really well," Beauchamp said. "On days where we've given up a goal or two, we rely on those guys on the other side of the ball to put in the right amount of goals. That's always a nice thing to have."
When this year's seniors were sophomores, they struggled to score. Six times they went into double overtime. Three ended in 0-0 ties. Two resulted in losses, 2-1 and 1-0. The team finished 7-7-5 and scored just 24 goals (1.3 per game).
This year, the Cardinals have no trouble slicing and pounding the ball into the net. They are averaging 2.7 goals per game.
"The fact that we can score now relieves some pressure from the defense to know if we're having a bad day, the offense will be able to pick us up," Narzikul said. "In the past, we haven't necessarily had that."
Across the Pond & Back
Catholic began the 2019 campaign with a 10-day soccer tour of England. The Cardinals participated in four training sessions, played three friendlies against local English Football Academy clubs and worked out at England's national training center.
Narzikul called it a good bonding experience.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "We were around each other 24/7 with the bus rides, training at world-class facilities and just being able to be kids. We sometimes forget that we're kids, and it's supposed to be fun. England was definitely a memorable experience and a ton of fun."
The tour, however, didn't pay immediate dividends on this side of the Atlantic. In the season-opening and Catholic-hosted Turk Emekli D.C. Classic, Gettysburg held the vaunted Cardinal scoring attack in check in a 3-0 victory.
"We kind of got punched in the mouth," Beauchamp said. "We came out with a little bit of a different formation, and we asked a lot of certain players. To be honest, we weren't fit enough to play against Gettysburg. So, for 60 minutes, it was a really good game. Unfortunately, we had to play 90. After that 60 minutes, in pretty short order, we were out of the game. Obviously, [the loss] helped us, but when we were going through it, we were pretty upset because we had [high] expectations. Coming out of the gate like that was tough."
Catholic shrugged the loss off the next day with a 2-0 win over Lycoming. A week later, it traveled to Patchogue, N.Y., and won the St. Joseph's College Invitational Tournament with a pair of 7-0 victories. In the two games, Alexander, Adam Melendez and Siahpoosh scored two goals apiece.
The three shutouts were the first of seven straight. "We've really locked things down defensively," Beauchamp said.
Enjoying the Ride
The Cardinals' national ranking of 19th is believed to be the highest in program history. Beauchamp is proud of his squad's accomplishments but cautions his players not to look beyond the next game.
"Because of our body of work, we have a lot of confidence, and that's always good, but we're trying not too look too far ahead," said Beauchamp, who guided the 2009 Cards to 16 wins and the program's first NCAA Tournament berth. "We realize if we want to be where we want to be, every game is really important."
Whether Catholic captures its fourth Landmark championship under Beauchamp or wins in the NCAA playoffs like it did for the first time in 2014, Narzikul is having a blast his senior year. For him, it is truly the journey, not the arrival point.
"The England trip definitely kicked us off right," Narzikul said. "Practices are enjoyable to go to, and there's a good energy around it. The coaching staff has been probably the best I've had in my life of playing sports. It's just been a fun team to be around. The bus rides are actually enjoyable. In my opinion, that's what playing a college sport is about: having fun, enjoying yourselves and trying to win some games. Luckily this year, we've been doing that."