BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Young team aims to turn tough lessons into NCAA Division-II success

COURTESY: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Grant Alcorn returns to the Concordia men's soccer team to guard the net for the Cavaliers.Even in his 30th season coaching men's soccer at Concordia University, Dan Birkey is focused on learning.

The Cavaliers have experienced a variety of learning opportunities over the past two seasons as they transitioned from the NAIA to NCAA Division II.

"There was a lot of opportunity for learning in the last two years as we moved up," Birkey says. "My task is to make sure that I learn as well, and that I teach for our level of competition ... and the results will follow."

After going 5-4-5 and placing fifth in their first season playing in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, the Cavs' youthful squad struggled through a 1-9-2 conference season in 2016. But Birkey is confident his team can turn some tough lessons into success as they become eligible for the first time to complete for the D-II playoffs.

Birkey has seen a different commitment from his 19 returning players.

"The kids that last year went through it with us, I can see it this year. They've taken it in the brow. They've paid some dues. Our grit level and our ability to stick with a plan and stick to details has to be better," Birkey says. "And they're bringing (the effort). It takes a while to get it when you transition upward."

The top returning scorer is sophomore forward Christian Thyron, who was third on the team last season with four goals and two assists. Sophomore forward Kieran McMinn had a team-high four assists.

Defensively, junior goalkeeper Grant Alcorn, senior defender Abdiel Morfin and sophomore center back Todd Gibbs are among those with significant experience. Morfin is one of only five seniors, while Alcorn is one of nine juniors on the roster.

Concordia was picked to again finish at the bottom of the seven-team league in a preseason poll of coaches. Simon Fraser was picked to repeat as conference champion.

"There's sort of a target on our back now because we're the new team coming into the league," says Alcorn, who had two shutouts in 14 appearances (13 starts) as a sophomore. "They might see that as an easy win, and I think it's our responsibility to turn their minds around about it."

Gibbs says speed of play and the speed at which the games come are both a challenge of the GNAC.

"The games come thick and fast ... there's no rest time," Gibbs says. "It's game after game. It's a unique league, a very strong league."

Gibbs, from New Zealand, is one of seven internationals on the Concordia roster.

"If we do it right, those athletes are good for the university," Birkey says. "They bring in different perspectives on life and values and experiences."

A strong local presence remains, though. Among the 12 newcomers are Class 6A 2016 player of the year Paul Seydel from Lakeridge High, 5A player of the year Reggie Reyer out of Woodburn and PIL player of the year Alec Dunkeld out of Wilson.

Birkey says moving to Division II makes Concordia's program more visible, and more interesting to a broader group of athletes. And succeeding in the GNAC requires a deeper roster than was needed in the NAIA.

"We've got to be deeper in our quality," Birkey says, noting that having more quality players makes for more productive training sessions, too. "You tend to have athletes that understand the value in the details of training. You've got to get a lot more right. You can't just do it right sometimes and win."

Attention to detail gives the Cavaliers a chance for marked improvement this season.

"What I saw last year is we were on the losing end of a lot of close games," Birkey says. Switching the result of a handful of moments can have a significant impact on a team's record.

"That margin of being first versus being seventh can just be four or five goals over 12 games," Birkey says. "Can we get those? That's why you work hard and analyze games and the players spend so much time. The players have to invest in that."

Concordia opens at 5 p.m. Thursday, playing host to Humboldt State. At 1:30 p.m. Saturday, the Cavaliers will be at home against San Francisco State.

The Cavs' 12-match GNAC schedule begins on Sept. 23 at Montana State Billings.

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