Men’s college soccer: Led by talented group of childhood teammates, Parkside rolls into D-II Tournament | College

Leki Prpa’s contributions to the UW-Parkside men’s soccer program apparently go far, far beyond his standout tenure with the Rangers, which concluded in 2019 when he was named first-team All-Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and led the team to an NCAA Division II Tournament berth.

Yes, Prpa’s own collegiate career was great. But he was also the start of what you might call a “Serbian pipeline,” a well of talented players who have come through the program in recent years and who this season helped Parkside back to the NCAA Division II Tournament, in which the third-seeded Rangers will host sixth-seeded Fort Hays State (Kan.) in a second-round matchup at noon Sunday at Pritchard Park in Racine.

Prpa came to the Rangers by way of Wind Lake and Muskego High School back in 2015, and as 11th-year Parkside head men’s soccer coach Jason Zitzke tells it, Prpa had some family and friends to give referrals to.



Prpa

There were cousins Petar Krecak and his brother, Stevi Krecak, who both came through the program and have graduated. Prpa helped reel in another cousin, Rade Novakovich, who’s now a redshirt junior forward with the Rangers and leads all of NCAA Division II this season in goals and points entering the national tournament.

And there were more from that group of Serbians, who all played at either Muskego, Oak Creek or Franklin in high school. From that group, along with Novakovich, senior forward Tode Atlija, redshirt junior midfielder/forward Nikola Kesich, redshirt junior midfielder/defender Nikola Prpa and redshirt junior midfielder Dejan Rokvic are all on the Rangers’ roster this season and helped them win both the GLIAC regular-season and tournament titles.

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“First Leki came, and he said, ‘Hey my cousin’s pretty good,’” Zitzke said in a phone interview Friday afternoon of his “Serbian pipeline.”



Jason Zitzke

Zitzke

“So (Petar Krecak) joined the team. And he said, ‘Hey, my brother (Stevi Krecak) …’ And I got him. (They said), ‘There’s a couple guys younger than us, and they’re interested.’ Before you knew it, there’s seven or eight of these guys that had grown up together, that they played in the backyard and broke the windows in the houses.”

Indeed, that group of Serbians have all played together in one way or another since they were kids, competing in club soccer for the United Serbian Soccer Club in Milwaukee and Red Star Soccer Club in Kenosha.

Novakovich leads nation

The most successful of that group this season, at least statistically, has been Novakovich, who enters the NCAA Division II Tournament first nationally with 24 goals and 58 points, which includes 10 assists.



Rade Novakovich

Novakovich

Novakovich transferred to Parkside from Milwaukee School of Engineering and tallied five goals and two assists in 2019, his first season with the Rangers. At that time, however, he was still trying to earn confidence as a college player.

“He’s not any less talented now than he was then,” Zitzke said. “Just his role was different, he was a new player, he was younger. He had a couple tough situations where he probably should’ve scored a couple and he didn’t, then you kind of question your confidence.

“… I’d have to say right now, that’s one thing. He’s feeling really confident.”

Novakovich’s teammates are also helping him find the back of the net.

“The guys around him are playing pretty well, so he’s getting good crosses and good passes and good serves,” Zitzke said. “They’re getting him the ball, and he’s more often than not putting it in the back of the net. He’s doing a lot, but then also his teammates are doing well, some of the unsung heroes.”

There is one player from the tight-knit group of Serbians, however, that didn’t go to Parkside, and that’s Novakovich’s older brother, Andrija Novakovich. Named the Gatorade State Player of the Year after scoring 41 goals for Muskego in the 2012 season, Andrija Novakovich turned professional right after high school and has so far had a stellar career.

Andrija Novakovich has played with the U.S. Men’s National Team and is currently playing for Frosinone Calcio in Italy’s Serie B League.

Staying in the present

As far as his team finding success this season, Zitzke said obtaining the right mindset has propelled the Rangers on their current eight-game winning streak.

Parkside began the season 5-0-1 and broke into the national rankings, but the Rangers hit a rough patch in the middle of the season, going 2-3-1 over a six-game stretch.

“I think we got a little ahead of ourselves and started looking way ahead of where we were at,” Zitzke said. “… Guys were maybe a little over-confident in the middle of the season.”

So Zitzke said the team just focused on forgetting everything that happened to that point. A prolific player himself at Parkside from 1995-98, Zitzke — who was inducted into the Parkside Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010 — played professional indoor soccer with the Milwaukee Wave, earning a National Professional Soccer League championship ring in the 1999-2000 season.

He said staying in the present was a key lesson for success he learned from being around professionals, and this year’s Rangers have adopted that mindset.

“People that were good professionals or good athletes, they just stayed even-keel,” Zitzke said. “… It got to a point where we were like, ‘OK, at this point, some of the work we did at the beginning is now wasted a little bit. We’ve just got to turn over. Forget everything. Let’s just play this game.’”

Zitzke also said the roster has come together nicely. The Rangers redshirted a whopping eight players in 2019, since that roster was filled with veteran talent, then they had the 2020 fall schedule wiped out due to the pandemic before playing a nine-game GLIAC-only schedule last spring.

After starting 0-2 in their 2021 spring slate, the Rangers won six straight matches, including a GLIAC Tournament quarterfinal match, before losing in the conference tournament semifinals. Zitzke said the combination of players who redshirted in 2019, those who saw limited action that season and transfers and newcomers to the program all began to come together late in that spring season.

That’s certainly carried over to this season.

“It just started all to mix,” Zitzke said. “Was the potential there? Yes. I don’t think it was a sure thing. A lot of guys stepped into a new role or a new position (this season). What you might have hoped for has happened, for the most part.”

Since a scoreless tie against Saginaw Valley State on Oct. 15, Parkside has won eight straight matches. The Rangers defeated Northern Michigan, 3-0, on Nov. 4 in Marquette, Mich., in the regular-season finale to clinch a share of the GLIAC regular-season title with Davenport, but the Rangers got the No. 1 seed for the GLIAC Tournament by virtue of a better goal differential.

Therefore, the GLIAC Tournament semifinals and championship matches were hosted by Parkside at Pritchard Park. The Rangers earned the title and the automatic bid to the NCAA Division II Tournament that comes with it after a 3-2 defeat of Purdue Northwest in the semifinals on Nov. 12 and a 3-2 win over Davenport in the title match last Sunday.

Parkside, now 15-3-2 overall, was ranked No. 20 in the latest United Soccer Coaches NCAA Division II poll, and with a strong non-conference resume, the Rangers got a No. 3 seed and a first-round bye for the national tournament.

Playing at Pritchard

Parkside normally plays its home matches at venerable Wood Road Field by the school, but the Rangers have been hosting their postseason matches at Racine’s new Pritchard Park, which they’ll continue to do for the NCAA Division II Tournament.

Zitzke pointed out what a great job Parkside’s facilities manager, Craig Becker, does in maintaining Wood Road Field, but that field is a natural grass surface, while Pritchard Park is artificial. During a period of heavy rains earlier this season, the Rangers were worried about damaging Wood Rood Field — and perhaps costing them a chance to host postseason matches — so they decided to play at Pritchard.

With the weather turning cold, the move to a smoother playing surface was something they decided to stick with for the remainder of the season.

“When you get to the conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament, I don’t think you want a game decided on a slip or a bad bounce, either way,” Zitzke said. “That’s not how you want to end the game.”

The winner of Sunday’s match will advance to a third-round match against either second-seeded Lake Erie (Ohio) or seventh-seeded Lewis (Ill.) at a time and location to be determined.

But you can bet the Rangers won’t be thinking that far ahead.

“To try to keep doing what we’ve been doing and just be ourselves,” Zitzke said when asked what it would take to beat Fort Hays State on Sunday. “That’s not try and be something that we’re not. Stay true to who we’ve been and what’s made us successful.

“That’s the simplest way to put it.”

IN PHOTOS: The UW-Parkside men’s soccer team wins the GLIAC Tournament championship match

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UW-Parkside’s Rade Novakovich, left, protects himself as Davenport’s Eoin Broughan kicks the ball during the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship match Sunday at Pritchard Park in Racine. The Rangers won, 3-2, to claim the conference title and earn an automatic berth in the NCAA Division II Tournament. After a first-round bye, third-seeded Parkside will host sixth-seeded Fort Hays State (Kan.) in a second-round match Sunday at Pritchard Park.



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UW-Parkside’s Dejan Rokvic, left, heads the ball away from Davenport’s Matt Whelan during the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship match last Sunday at Pritchard Park in Racine. The Rangers host Fort Hays State (Kan.) in an NCAA Division II Tournament second-round match at noon Sunday at Pritchard Park.



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UW-Parkside goalkeeper Alexandre Durand celebrates the Rangers’ 3-2 win over Davenport in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship match Sunday at Pritchard Park in Racine. The Rangers claimed the conference title and earned an automatic berth in the NCAA Division II Tournament. After a first-round bye, third-seeded Parkside will host sixth-seeded Fort Hays State (Kan.) in a second-round match Sunday at Pritchard Park.



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UW-Parkside goalkeeper Alexandre Durand, center, collides with his teammate Matteo Quintero, right, as they protect the goal against Davenport during the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship match Sunday at Pritchard Park in Racine. The Rangers won, 3-2, to claim the conference title and earn an automatic berth in the NCAA Division II Tournament. After a first-round bye, third-seeded Parkside will host sixth-seeded Fort Hays State (Kan.) in a second-round match Sunday at Pritchard Park.



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UW-Parkside goalkeeper Alexandre Durand keeps his eyes on the ball as a teammate kicks it away against Davenport during the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship match Sunday at Pritchard Park in Racine. The Rangers won, 3-2, to claim the conference title and earn an automatic berth in the NCAA Division II Tournament. After a first-round bye, third-seeded Parkside will host sixth-seeded Fort Hays State (Kan.) in a second-round match Sunday at Pritchard Park.



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UW-Parkside’s Dejan Rokvic, right, takes the ball away from Davenport’s Tyler Welch during the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship match last Sunday at Pritchard Park in Racine. The Rangers host Fort Hays State (Kan.) in an NCAA Division II Tournament second-round match at noon Sunday at Pritchard Park.



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UW-Parkside’s Rade Novakovich celebrates the second of his two goals against Davenport with a fan during the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship match last Sunday at Pritchard Park in Racine. The Rangers host Fort Hays State (Kan.) in an NCAA Division II Tournament second-round match at noon Sunday at Pritchard Park.



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UW-Parkside’s Henry Bruer-Schmadalla, left, defends Davenport’s Matt Whelan during the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship match Sunday at Pritchard Park in Racine. The Rangers won, 3-2, to claim the conference title and earn an automatic berth in the NCAA Division II Tournament. After a first-round bye, third-seeded Parkside will host sixth-seeded Fort Hays State (Kan.) in a second-round match Sunday at Pritchard Park.



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UW-Parkside’s Dejan Rokvic, left, heads the ball away from Davenport’s Matt Whelan during the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship match Sunday at Pritchard Park in Racine. The Rangers won, 3-2, to claim the conference title and earn an automatic berth in the NCAA Division II Tournament. After a first-round bye, third-seeded Parkside will host sixth-seeded Fort Hays State (Kan.) in a second-round match Sunday at Pritchard Park.



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UW-Parkside’s Nikola Kesich, right, tries to block the kick of Davenport goalkeeper Shane Marinkovich during the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship match Sunday at Pritchard Park in Racine. The Rangers won, 3-2, to claim the conference title and earn an automatic berth in the NCAA Division II Tournament. After a first-round bye, third-seeded Parkside will host sixth-seeded Fort Hays State (Kan.) in a second-round match Sunday at Pritchard Park.



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UW-Parkside’s Rade Novakovich, right, tries to keep control of the ball as Davenport’s George Deveau tries to force him off it during the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship match Sunday at Pritchard Park in Racine. The Rangers won, 3-2, to claim the conference title and earn an automatic berth in the NCAA Division II Tournament. After a first-round bye, third-seeded Parkside will host sixth-seeded Fort Hays State (Kan.) in a second-round match Sunday at Pritchard Park. Novakovich leads all of NCAA Division II in goals and total points entering the national tournament.



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UW-Parkside’s Osvaldo Sanchez Arellano, right, celebrates his goal against Davenport with teammate Dejan Rokvic, left, during the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship match Sunday at Pritchard Park in Racine. The Rangers won, 3-2, to claim the conference title and earn an automatic berth in the NCAA Division II Tournament. After a first-round bye, third-seeded Parkside will host sixth-seeded Fort Hays State (Kan.) in a second-round match Sunday at Pritchard Park.



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UW-Parkside’s Rade Novakovich takes a shot on goal against Davenport during the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship match last Sunday at Pritchard Park in Racine. The Rangers host Fort Hays State (Kan.) in an NCAA Division II Tournament second-round match at noon Sunday at Pritchard Park.



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UW-Parkside’s Rade Novakovich celebrates the second of his two goals against Davenport during the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship match Sunday at Pritchard Park in Racine. The Rangers won, 3-2, to claim the conference title and earn an automatic berth in the NCAA Division II Tournament. After a first-round bye, third-seeded Parkside will host sixth-seeded Fort Hays State (Kan.) in a second-round match Sunday at Pritchard Park.



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UW-Parkside’s Rade Novakovich, center, takes a run at the goal between Davenport’s Daire O’Riordan, left, and George Deveau, right, during the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship match Sunday at Pritchard Park in Racine. The Rangers won, 3-2, to claim the conference title and earn an automatic berth in the NCAA Division II Tournament. After a first-round bye, third-seeded Parkside will host sixth-seeded Fort Hays State (Kan.) in a second-round match Sunday at Pritchard Park. Novakovich leads all of NCAA Division II in goals and total points entering the national tournament.



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UW-Parkside’s Simon Eybert slides to kick the ball away from Davenport’s Tyler Welch during the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship match Sunday at Pritchard Park in Racine. The Rangers won, 3-2, to claim the conference title and earn an automatic berth in the NCAA Division II Tournament. After a first-round bye, third-seeded Parkside will host sixth-seeded Fort Hays State (Kan.) in a second-round match Sunday at Pritchard Park.



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