November 14, 2011

Hellooooo Neumann!

Neumann battles the defending champions. (Photo: Messiah Sports Information)

By Christan Shirk

So what's the bigger story here? That Messiah lost? That Messiah lost to the likes of Neumann?  Or that Neumann defeated a team such as Messiah?  It's a fair question as they are all big deals.  

Mild upsets happen all the time and occasionally you have a big upset.  And one of the biggest first round upsets in recent times happened Saturday when Randolph beat Christopher Newport.  If Messiah were merely this year's No. 1 team, the story would be big, but not bigger than big.  Messiah, however, is the gold standard of D-III men's soccer.  Eight national titles in eleven years is . . . otherworldly.  They only fell short at the semifinal stage in two of the other three years in that run and the other year they didn't even lose, eliminated on penalty kicks.  A Final Four fixture for seven straight years and ten of the last eleven.  The elite men's program with a 51-4-2 tournament record from 1999 through Sunday night.  That's an amazing .912 winning percentage in tournament play.  No one comes close to that level of sustained post-season success over any time frame even approaching half that long.  

And that's why Trinity (Tx.) going one-and-out is not near as big news.  That's why Christopher Newport being similarly upset by Randolph in the first round isn't as shocking.  And those results are huge results.  But no offense to those schools; they are not Messiah.

And Messiah is not Neumann.  Neumann will be playing next weekend and Messiah will not.  Neumann has never played soccer so late into the year while Messiah hasn't had to clean out their lockers before Thanksgiving since 2003.  If Messiah had gotten a tough draw that pitted them against a Montclair State or some such school in the second round, this also would not be such a big deal.  This year's team wasn't steamrolling opponents and Messiah's next tournament loss was bound to come sooner or later.  However, a ranked team with tournament experience would have made a more plausible scenario for a Messiah loss.  But not a minnow.  Messiah was the one school that just did not get upset.  Until now.  Until Neumann.

Who's Neumann?  A relatively young Catholic university about a half hour outside Philadelphia, founded in 1965 as a women’s college with an initial enrollment of 115 students and now educating over 3,000 male and female students each year.  

No, who's Neumann the soccer team?  A program in only its fifthteenth year of existence that had never had a winning season until last year.  In 1997 Messiah was taking its program to the next level with the promotion of Dave Brandt to head coach while Neumann was opening its first dormitory and starting a men's soccer team.  

A combined 32-115-6 over the program's first nine seasons when Kevin Sloan was hired as head coach, the new coach couldn't work miracles and went 1-18-0 in his first season.  But by his fifth season he guided the Knights to their first winning season that culminated in the CSAC championship and a first-ever NCAA berth.  Despite the third highest scoring offense in the nation (3.10 gpg), partially a reflection of not playing the most difficult schedule in or out of conference, they were promptly dismissed 3-0 by Christopher Newport in the first round.  

A similar fate was expected when the repeat CSAC champs came to Grantham, Pennsylvania Sunday evening on the heels of a first round penalty kick win over Salisbury on Thursday.  Not technically a victory, it still would have to suffice for now as a date with the three-time defending champions certainly spelled the end of another successful season under Coach Sloan.  After all, what business did a CSAC team have trying to compete with almighty Messiah?  How could the upstarts who had lost seven starters to graduation expect anything more out of their "re-building" year? 

Regardless of expectations, they left Messiah's Shoemaker field after 97 minutes of grit and determination with a 1-0 overtime victory that one is almost tempted to call historic, and from Neumann's perspective it certainly is.  So how did Neumann manage to do what only Trinity (Tx.), Williams, Salisbury, and St. Lawrence have managed to do in the previous twelve years: shutout Messiah in a tournament game?  Why was it Neumann that joined Trinity (Tx.) and Redlands as the only teams to pin a NCAA defeat on the Falcons since the turn of the century?  Neumann?  Really?  How do you explain that?  

I don't think you can.  Soccer is a funny and sometimes cruel sport, and it's fair to say Messiah has played many teams far superior to Neumann and have won time and time again.   It wasn't a case of Messiah playing poorly against Neumann.  Sure, they probably should have placed more of their shots on frame and been more dangerous on set pieces, but they did play at a high level.  Nor was it a matter of Neumann, retooled and more dependant on their defense in 2011, playing out-of-their-minds good.  One can't help but hear the classic "it was just one of those games; sometimes the better team doesn't win," echo in their mind.  And while there is certainly some truth there that even Neumann would have to acknowledge, tournament time is about finding a way to win and advance and Neumann did just that.  It wasn't pretty and it so easily could have ended 1-0 in favor of the 8-time champions in which case the game would have been quickly forgotten by all but Neumann who would have taken home a moral victory by playing the champs so close. 

Neumann made their presence felt whenever Messiah got near the box. (Photo: Messiah Sports Information)

But it's a real victory they have won, not just a moral one.  They battled non-stop throughout, much of it in their own end, defending for their lives, bending but not breaking.  Neumann's head coach Kevin Sloan knew the Messiah bench was strong, probably as good as most of their other opponents, so he got his players mentally prepared to face the constant pressure.  "We bought into the idea of keeping our energy up, even when they were pinching us into our half throughout regulation," added Sloan. "We knew we would have only a few chances, so we had to give it everything we had."  And that they did.  The effort was there.  They played knowing their chances were slim, but believing that slim might just be good enough.  And they held unwavering to that belief throughout.  

They did not wilt; they did not shy away.  They absorbed, absorbed, and absorbed some more pressure and one way or another thwarted most every Falcon effort, getting help from the post the one time they needed it.  They played physical but fair, and disrupted Messiah's striker and All-American candidate Danny Thompson's game as well as any opponent all season.  They picked their spots to attack, and though very infrequent and without committing too many to the cause, they usually got a shot out of it.  Harmless shots, perhaps, but enough to make Falcon fans nervous as the scoreboard continued to read zeros as the game churned towards overtime. 

The 42-game unbeaten streak did not matter to them.  The No. 1 ranking did not matter to them.   The eight stars over the team crest did not matter to them.   And as the clock ticked down, the fact that the players in white had only been held scoreless in regulation once ever did not matter to them.  They respected all that but believed that if they gave 110% from start to finish, they could top Randolph's feat 24 hours prior and shock the D-III soccer world.  And thus it transpired.  In the sixth minute of overtime, a free kick in Knight's own defensive half—the result of an offside call—would set the stage.  Three-quarters of the field from Messiah's goal, the kick would have been thought harmless by both sides at any other time in any other game but edge-of-your-seat sudden death overtime in a do-or-die NCAA tournament game.  

Instead of routinely putting the ball back into play, Neumann must have sensed a chance, maybe their last chance.  That Messiah had stopped losing overtime tournament games ten years ago with a 10-0-2 record since then did not matter to them.  They sent bodies forward as their senior goalkeeper Bob Mastrillo lined-up to launch the ball all the way downfield.  The ball fell near the top of the box without any player getting a head to it and it bounced deeper into the area.  As the Messiah keeper Jake Berry came to corral the ball, it was Knight's senior midfielder Andrew Leissing who was first to the ball.  "I just wanted to get a touch, get a flick on it," said the team's leading scorer. "(Berry) came out and I was able to put it over him." His little touch sent the ball over the outstretched keeper and, in seemingly slow-motion, over the goal line just before defenders could clear the ball away.  

The contrast of emotions between the two sets of players and fans alike could not have been stronger.  One side slumped in silent disbelief, the other leaped and screamed in jubilant celebration.  "It's an unbelievable feeling to win this game," exclaimed Mastrillo, who not only got credited with the shutout but the game-winning assist. "It's everything you dream of—away, on their field, in overtime. They're an amazing team."   He's right, the Falcons are an amazing team, but so too are the Neumann Knights who D-III soccer fans across the nation will now know about.  

The loss shouldn't take away from what Messiah, and especially, their seniors have accomplished.  There will be no ninth title this year nor an unprecedented fourth straight for the graduating seniors.  But no one will feel sorry for them; and they won't feel sorry for themselves once they move past the initial shock and pain of the loss.  "Our seniors have had unbelievable careers," said Messiah's third-year head coach Brad McCarty after suffering just his third loss in three years at the helm. "We'll miss them, and we're disappointed mostly because we don't get to spend another week with them on the field." Messiah's seniors finish with a 87-5-3 (.932) overall record. 

But the night belonged to Neumann and their seniors, especially Mastrillo and Leissing.  They are creating their own legacy, just as important in its own context.  The Neumann coaching staff and entire squad came prepared to give Messiah all it could handle, and for one rare night it was more than they could handle.  The game can be broken down and analyzed to try to explain the unexpected result, but the bottom line is that the Neumann Knights gave their all, believed they could win, and held to a game plan that would give them the best chance at victory.  Introductions are in order: Sweet 16, Neumann.  Neumann, Sweet 16.


Comments or feedback for the author?  Email Christan Shirk.



Jim Matson, Christan Shirk, Ryan Harmanis, and other staff writers and contributors help cover the games and results across the nation.

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Nov 13: Welcome to the Sweet 16, Part 1: the Women
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