Faced with the difficult decision of following many of his teammates to Division 1 or stepping out of his comfort zone a bit to play Division III soccer in the Windy City, Philadelphia Union Academy grad Isaiah Holquist ended up choosing the path that led to the University of Chicago.
Three months after starting his college career, he and the Maroons are one win away from playing for an NCAA Division III national championship.
“It was kind of a tough choice between D1 and D3,” Holquist said. “The main concern was I wanted to play a style of soccer I would fit in with and enjoy. I wanted to have a coaching staff that would have a positive environment and a team that would be a tight-knit community.”
By making it to Greensboro, North Carolina, the Maroons have already exceeded expectations for a program that has only once made it this far (the 1996 team lost in the final) in part thanks to the contributions of the Bala Cynwyd, Pa. native who graduated from Lower Merion High School back in June.
“It’s hard for me to think of any freshman I have coached who has immediately earned more trust and respect from his teammates,” fifth-year head coach Michael Babst said of Holquist. “He has been massively important to this team.”
An outside back who plays mostly on the left side, the 18-year-old has appeared in all but one of the Maroons’ 22 games this season and made 15 starts. He’s contributed a goal and an assist on the stat sheet.
“It was apparent early on that Isaiah would help our team with his calmness on the ball, passing and defending,” Babst said. “But as the season has played out he has shown to be the type of competitor who finds another level at the most important moments.”
Holquist said his time in the Philadelphia Union Academy - he started out in the first U14 team in the Union’s first season in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy in 2013-14 after playing for FC Delco - and the emphasis on technical development has served him well in his adjustment to the college game.
“One of the big things when you play academy you just get really incredible technical training,” Holquist said. “I came in with a lot of confidence in my passing and being able to ping the ball around.”
Confidence was high for the whole team at the start of the season as the Maroons rolled off 11 straight wins and rose to No. 1 in the United Soccer Coaches poll. But losses to Emory and North Park in October brought the team back down to earth a bit.
A narrow 1-0 victory over semifinalist Brandeis (they play Messiah in the other semifinal on Friday) highlighted a three-game win streak to close the regular season. But once into the NCAA tournament field, the Maroons found themselves in an early hole when they conceded a goal 10 seconds in to Lake Forest.
“You learn from that experience to keep believing and fight back,” Holquist said.
The game ended up a 6-2 win for Chicago and after a 2-0 second round win over Capital, the Maroons faced the first game in what Holquist said has been the team’s redemption tour.
“We’ve gotten to play all the teams we lost to this year,” he said.
Chicago lost to Calvin in the preseason but beat the top-ranked team in the nation at the time in the third round 2-0 and then advanced against Emory on penalties after a 1-1 draw to book their trip to North Carolina.
Now, North Park, a fellow Chicago team that beat them 1-0 on October 18, stands in the way.
“A big thing for us is that self belief, especially in playing teams we’ve lost to before, but also just going into tough games,” Holquist said. “Even if we’re in a tough situation in a game it’s just that belief and confidence kind of that no matter what we’ll handle our business.”
The do or die nature of the college postseason and the school spirit aspect of representing the university has been new for Holquist, who chose to attend his local high school instead of YSC Academy as many of the players on the Union and some from Continental FC do. He remembers high school classmates being surprised to learn that he played soccer.
Now he’s part of a team trying to make history at a school known across the world for academics but not so much for soccer (by contrast Messiah is seeking its 11th national title).
“The longer it goes the longer you get to play with your teammates,” he said, noting that the women’s team will also be in North Carolina for the women’s final four. “It builds confidence and strengthens the bond.”