Nov. 8, 2012
LOUDONVILLE, N.Y. - It is a cold Monday morning and the Siena men's soccer team is practicing for the MAAC Tournament. An assistant coach is driving balls into the box where goalkeepers practice leaping for crosses in traffic. Other field players are playing small-sided games on the other half of the field. The entire team is on the field preparing for Thursday's semifinal matchup with No. 3 Niagara (11-1-4, 5-1-1 MAAC) in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Well, almost. The team's leading scorer Sindre Ek is noticeably missing. He's in the weight room, sitting on a bench resting a tight quad, rapidly lifting and slamming a heavy rope with each hand. The strength and conditioning coach Dan Taylor is standing beside him, holding a stopwatch and calls out "20 seconds."
To say that Siena's (10-6, 6-1 MAAC) championship hopes rest on Ek's legs would be an overstatement, but he is the team's main source of offense. With 29 points, Ek ranks 13th in the nation in scoring and has tallied nearly half the team's goals (12 of 26). For his efforts, he was named the MAAC Offensive Player of the Year at Wednesday night's conference awards banquet.
Ek, a 5-8 forward, hails from Oslo, Norway. He is a quick, speedy player who can create his own scoring opportunities.
"I don't like when the ball is in the air," he says laughing. "I like the ball at my feet. I'm a dribbler."
Ek has transitioned from playing primarily outside midfielder the past three years to forward this season. He creates a lot of his own opportunities, taking the ball and attacking defenders or putting pressure on opponents and forcing mistakes, which he then capitalizes on.
"This year I've been focusing on just scoring goals," he said. "I'm trying to save energy to make big runs offensively." He credits some of his scoring punch to summer conditioning. While Ek took summer classes at Siena, he ran every day. "A lot," he stresses. After the summer session ended, he returned home to Norway and played with his old club team KFUM OSLO. He came back to Siena in the fall with a nose for the goal.
"The thing about scoring goals is it's all about confidence. And I've been a lot more confident this year than in previous years," he said.
Ek made his way from Norway to Loudonville after Head Coach Gareth Elliott was told about a "tricky winger." Elliott watched Ek's highlight tape and reached out to him. There was some scholarship money available and Ek eventually came to Siena as a freshman in 2009.
But the Siena coaches almost missed out on seeing Ek evolve into the prolific scorer he is today. After his freshman year he had second thoughts about being at Siena and wondered if he should return home. It was difficult getting used to a new country, a different language and balancing college coursework with Division I soccer. Elliott, having walked in those shoes before - he left his home in Belfast, Northern Ireland to play soccer at the University of Rhode Island in 1998, knew a little bit about what he was going through. They had a conversation and Ek decided to stay.
"I think he becomes an even more likeable character because of how he says different things or how he looks at different things. He has his own philosophy about things," Elliott said. "Thank God he decided to stay."
Ek has become more comfortable at Siena, enjoying collegiate soccer and working on his bachelor's degree in economics. He says Siena has been a welcoming place where it is easy to get help if it is needed. A calming factor has been the international presence on this year's team. Twelve of the 26 Siena players are foreign-born.
"The toughest thing was getting to know the language," Ek said. "But I've had great teammates who have always been looking out for me."
In Europe, players must choose soccer or college. Siena gave Ek a chance to do both. And he's happy with his decision to come here.
"I knew that I could combine soccer and education at a high level," he said. "I feel like I've developed a lot, not only education wise, but I feel like I'm a better soccer player."
Four games into Ek's freshman year, he experienced what he now calls the best moment of his career. With little more than 10 minutes left and Siena leading St. Bonaventure, 2-1, he inadvertently scored an own goal that tied the game.
"That was my first goal at Siena," he says, now laughing about that embarrassing moment. But with 23 seconds left in regulation, Ek redeemed himself and scored the game winning goal on a counter-attack. The team mobbed him in celebration. "That was crazy. I remember I wanted to make up for that (mistake)," he said.
Elliott beams when talking about Ek - his academics, he never gets into trouble and the way he plays. Even if he's not scoring goals, Ek is working hard and making a contribution.
"Sindre's extremely modest. He would prefer to beat five players and pass the ball across to you for an open net and let you take all the praise in the newspaper," Elliott said. "He doesn't care about the write-ups or the awards. He just loves to play soccer and he loves to win."
That modesty worried Elliott coming into this season because Ek would be relied on heavily for scoring and yet he didn't really want the spotlight. But those concerns were wiped away immediately. Ek started the season red-hot, scoring in each of the first five games. Still, Siena struggled, starting with a 2-4 record. Three of those losses were in overtime.
"That's tough for any team to take, but the guys stuck together," Elliott said. After that shaky start, Siena beat UMass and cross-town rival UAlbany. The nonconference schedule ended with a loss to St. Bonaventure, but the Saints found their groove in league play with a 6-1 record and earned the No. 2 seed in the MAAC Tournament (the final two games of the regular season were canceled due to Hurricane Sandy).
The Saints have endured their share of postseason heartache. In 2008, a red card in the 17th minute of the semifinals against Fairfield led to a 4-0 defeat. In 2010 Siena lost to Iona, 2-1, in the semifinals and last year they lost to Iona in the quarterfinals on penalty kicks.
"The hardest thing is getting over the hump," Elliott said. "But I think once you're over the hump, that breeds confidence for future years with the players having been there and won a championship."
Ek likes their chances, saying that although every team in the tournament is tough, they are all beatable. Niagara's only loss this season came at the hands of Siena, 1-0. The rematch should be another defensive battle as Niagara ranks first in league defense and Siena ranks third (allowed seven goals in seven games).
"If we can score goals, we can win the game. We have a really good back four and a good goalie," Ek said.
Offensively, all eyes are on Ek. He knew entering his senior year that he would be a key to Siena's success, that this would be his last shot at a championship. Siena men's soccer has never won a MAAC Championship or appeared in the NCAA Tournament. Ek and his teammates aim to change that.
"It would be cool to be a part of history," Ek said.
So, as Ek rests his legs for the MAAC semifinal, his importance to the team becomes clear.
"I wouldn't swap him for any other player in the conference," Elliott said.