NKU Soccer Thrives in New Regional Rivalry with Cincinnati
When asked what makes Northern Kentucky University goalkeeper A.J. Fleak such a good player for his position, head coach John Basalyga rattled off his measurements.
“Six foot two, two-hundred and thirty pounds,” he joked. “I've seen A.J play since he was 15-years old when he was a forward. He's just so athletic. He's deceptively quick and he's fearless in the goal.”
Fleak is a big man on campus, but he's a rather formidable presence in his soccer conference as well. Fleak was named the Preseason Atlantic Sun Conference Goalkeeper of the Year, voted on by the conference's coaches.
“He's got very good hands, he's got good reactions, he can kick the ball, he can throw it, he's got a lot of things going for himself and he's kept us in a lot of games.” Basalyga said.
Fleak played a year at the University of Cincinnati before transferring to NKU and seems to have moved on well.
“I haven't really kept in touch with most of those guys, but it's going to be a great rivalry between NKU and UC and hopefully it lasts for a few more years. It should be good soccer.” he said.
The Norse hosted UC Friday night in their season opener, battling to a 1-1 tie. In the exhibition games leading up to Friday's match, NKU had not allowed a goal, helped largely by the stellar play of Fleak. Quality defense, however, is never made possible by one player alone.
“I give a lot of credit to the people in front of me. They make my job a lot easier. We've had a pretty good defense over the last few years and it's been a huge help for me and my success here so far,” Fleak said.
As good as Fleak and crew have been, however, the offense has not lived up to its end. While the team has not allowed a goal so far, they also have yet to score one of their own.
“We didn't score any goals so that's going to be a problem and was kind of a problem last year,” Coach Basalyga said.
He does see hope in that area, however. He pointed to striker Alwin Komolong of New Guinea as a player that can spark more offense for the Norse as well as Caleb Eastham who returns for his senior season, and freshman Kobie Qualah. He sees the trio as a variety of scoring threats that he said the team did not have last year.
“We've addressed those issues and hopefully we can find some continuity in our attack,” said Basalyga. “We think we're going to be pretty good defensively with A.J. back there so it's a matter of whether or not we can find some offensive personality.”
The regional battle to start off the season may answer a lot of questions Coach Basalyga hasabout his unit. He raved about the athleticism UC showcases on its roster and pointed out the good coaching the Bearcats receive from Hylton Dayes.
“UC is very athletic. Very quick. They've got everybody back. They're going to be the biggest challenge we have all year,” he said.
The coaching staff obviously likes Fleak at goalie, but they also like backup, Toby Frohlich, and it's the competition between the two that has kept Fleak even more focused to do well and keep his job.
“They've both improved a great deal over the last couple of years because of the competition between Toby and A.J.,” Basalyga said.
While there are many good things that Fleak does physically, he sees his verbal skills as something that separates him form the rest.
“I think a lot of communication between teammates really helps. One key to being a good goalkeeper is telling everybody where to go and what's around them and just keeping things organized.”
The Atlantic Sun promises to be a very competitive group of teams this season, especially after Mercer and East Tennessee State left the conference this season.
“They were two of the top-four teams in the conference so it makes everything more wide open right now. You can't really have a bad day. Before you could kind of have a hiccup, but now you can't have any hiccups. If you lose to someone early, there's really no place to recover.”
The Norse open their conference schedule with home games against Lipscomb and Florida Gulf Coast beginning in October.
“Those are two teams ahead of us right now, so we'll find out real fast what we're made of,” Basalyga said about the conference games.
NKU has 11 home games this year compared to only five last season, but Basalyga sees that as an extra challenge.
“It was good to be on the road so much because we had these kids under our thumb. We had them in routines and put them under our regiment. Now they're on their own and last year we had some issues where we didn't play well at home,” the coach said.
For Coach Basalyga, A.J. Fleak, and the rest of the Norse, the season opener against Cincinnati at home is the true measuring stick of progress from a season ago.
“It's good for soccer and good for the city that NKU and UC are playing, so we're hoping to have a big crowd,” Basalyga said before the opener.
The crowd of 770 was the highest ever for an NKU regular season game.
Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor
Photo: A.J. Fleak (provided)