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November 28, 2012

Men's Semifinal 1 Preview

Other Previews: Men's Semifinal 2 Women's  Semifinal 1 | Semifinal 2

By Christan Shirk

NCAA Division III Men's Soccer - National Semifinal 1

Friday, November 30 — 11:00 am CT

No. 1  Messiah (21-0-2)

vs.

No. 2  Loras (23-1-1)

How they reached the Final Four

Messiah: Commonwealth Automatic Berth (AQ) | 1st Rnd: Bye | 2nd Rnd: W3-0 Emory (H) | Sweet 16: T2-2(2ot)(4-2 pks) York (Pa.) (A) | Elite 8: W3-0 Scranton (N)

Loras: IIAC Automatic Berth (AQ) | 1st Rnd: W1-0 St. Scholastica (H) | 2nd Rnd: W1-0 North Park (H) | Sweet 16: W2-1 UW-Platteville (H) | Elite 8: W2-1 Wheaton (Ill.) (H)

2012 Statistical Overview

Messiah: 21-0-2 (.957) | 3.16 GSA, 0.34 GAA (+2.82) | Avg. OWP: .587 | Last Ten: 9-0-1

Loras: 23-1-1 (.940) | 2.72 GSA, 0.41 GAA (+2.31) | Avg. OWP: .584 | Last Ten: 10-0-0

Messiah Season Review

For all the great Messiah teams of the previous decade, they only entered the NCAA tournament undefeated one time in 2005. Last year and again this year the Falcons have repeated the feat and this decade is still young. Of course, last year that meant very little when the Falcons got dumped from the tournament in their opening match, breaking a streak of thirteen years in which Messiah had reached the Sweet 16 by winning at least one tournament game. Less than half of the squad that 4th-year head coach McCarty welcomed into pre-season camp fourteen weeks ago had ever won an NCAA game in a Messiah shirt much less a national title. Was Messiah’s reign as D-III’s top program ending? Was McCarty’s early success mostly coattail-riding? Had the Falcons’ spell over the tournament well and truly been broken by Neumann?

That was the backdrop to the 2012 season which saw Messiah and their sophomore-heavy line-up held scoreless by Oneonta State opening weekend despite plenty of possession and shots. In the second road game in as many days to open their campaign, the 2011 semifinalists were largely toothless and yet Messiah could not take advantage. Was this a sign of things to come for the Falcons? In a technically gifted team, were there any dependable finishers, any game-changers? It would be the last time the Falcons were kept of the scoreboard all season, but long scoreless stretches in games against Gettysburg, Catholic, and Dickinson meant questions about goal-scoring would remain at least through the mid-season clash with York that went into double overtime scoreless. A line-up change at the start of overtime resulted in an improved attacking dynamic and has been used ever since.

That line-up, with Josh Wood (10g, 8a) in as the striker and Jeremy Payne (15 g, 9a) dropped into midfield, made the Falcons look more dangerous and they took their next eleven matches, all in conference, en route to the Commonwealth title and automatic berth into the NCAA tournament. However, the goal-scoring question mark reared its head in several conference matches scattered amongst high scoring performances. So many players can score (four have 10 tallies or more and another six have 3 or more goals) and in many different ways, but between shots passed up and unconverted efforts the team goal tally often seemed less than their usual possession advantage and skillful build-up play deserved.

Whether the previous year’s upset loss weighed on the minds of the Messiah players or not, they got exactly what they needed in their tournament opener against Emory: an early goal to relax the team and propel them to a rather easy win even if the score sheet might suggest otherwise. It would not be as easy or relaxed a win in the Elite 8 against Scranton, but nevertheless a game they largely controlled and looked the only winners. It was the game in between, their re-match against their rivals York, that most threatened to derail their quest to get back to the Final Four that they have called home ten of the previous twelve seasons. They looked well on their way when a spirited quarter hour coming out of the intermission broke the scoreless deadlock into a 2-goal advantage. But like a true rival and worthy opponent, York pushed back to the tune of two goals in next seven minutes. Both teams created chances for the game-winner both in the remainder of regulation and the two overtime periods, but penalty kicks would decide their fates and in keeping with each team’s history Messiah made the shots to win and York did not.

Loras Season Review

Loras might not carry into each new season the same weight of expectations that Messiah has created for itself, but it’s a very proud program that has been among the nation’s best over the last ten years and realistically aspires to the national title each season. So it certainly was not a pleasant off-season for the Duhawks after being unceremoniously booted from the 2011 NCAA tournament when Calvin shocked Loras and their fans with a 4-0 second round win in the Rock Bowl. Could Loras make another run at the title as they did in 2007 and 2008 when Duhawk legends Mejia and Bonilla were re-writing the school record book? That’s certainly the belief that coach Rothert, the players, and their fans had yet again as the 2012 campaign kicked off, and they came out flying with three goals less than fifteen minutes into the new season leading to a 6-0 thrashing of over-matched Bethel.

While the opposition would typically be stronger than that, Loras proved themselves superior to the best they would face over the next two months, even their lone loss and lone tie being games they outperformed, if not out-scored, their opponents. If they could have made their 23-7 advantage in shots (SOG 8-2) pay off with just a single goal against Washington U. and if UW-Platteville's Brandon Chmiel had been limited to just one highlight reel moment, Loras would be undefeated and probably the No. 1 ranked team by a slight margin over Messiah.

Following the loss to UW-Platteville they would close out the regular season with ten straight wins that included eight shutouts and a 7-0 sweep of all conference games to take the IIAC title. Two more wins in the conference tournament handed Loras the IIAC’s automatic berth to the dance. Sandwiched into their conference run were two hard fought wins over Wheaton (Ill.) and Dominican that proved their mettle and championship potential. However, they didn’t always make it easy on themselves. Boosted by lopsided victories over Buena Vista, Simpson twice, and the aforementioned Bethel, their goal scoring average partially masks some problems with finishing, especially from the forwards. Their season was strewn with dominating performances that yielded narrow 1-goal victories with most of the scoring coming from midfielders. In fact, take away those four blow-out wins by a combined 29-0 in which the forwards bagged half their season output, and the front line only added about a dozen goals in the other 21 games played to date resulting in a less impressive 1.89 GSA and +1.41 goal differential. On the positive side, Loras gets goals from all over and from their bench (six have 5 tallies or more and another four have 3 goals) and forward Brad Joiner’s goals usually are of the game-winning variety.

The good, the not so good—it has all been on display in the Loras’ tournament run to the Final Four. In their 1-0 round one win over St. Scholastica they took 30 shots, 11 on target, but had to wait until the 85th minute to finally find the back of the net. The win over North Park by the same score resulted from a goal in 73rd minute when they finally converted their seventeenth shot of the game. In their re-match with Platteville, they overturned their only loss of the season in a match that Platteville on the whole may have been stronger than in the one they won back in September. Despite being outshot 18-10 by Wheaton in their Elite 8 rematch, Loras scored early and doubled their advantage while bending but not breaking on defense. Six tournament goals scored by four different players, none of them forwards, gave the Duhawks four one-goal wins and a ticket to the Final Four.

Head Coaches

Messiah

Brad McCarty, 4th year (2009-2012)

Overall: 86-3-3 (.951)

NCAA's (4 of 4 yrs.): 13-1-1 (.900), Champion - '09,'10

Has a head coach ever inherited a program better set-up for success than Brad McCarty? Of course, he also had a nearly impossible standard to live up to. In many ways, a lose-lose situation and surely some chalked up his first two titles to the players the record-breaking Coach Brandt had recruited and trained before handing over the reins. Of course, that would ignore the fact that McCarty was Brandt’s right-hand man for the previous eight seasons and was heavily involved in the recruitment process. Last year’s shock exit from the NCAA tournament probably raised more question marks, but now in his fourth year the team is his and has yet to be beaten. McCarty and his staff are up to the task.

Loras

Dan Rothert, 15th year (1998-2012)

Overall: 237-83-18 (.728)

NCAA's (8 of 15 yrs.): 17-6-2 (.720), Final Four - '07,'08, Sweet 16 - '05,'09,'10

Just three years after his own playing days at Loras, Dan Rothert returned in 1998 to take over what basically was a .500 men’s program along with three-year old women’s program. By his fourth season the women’s team made their first NCAA tournament as they would for nine of the following eleven years as well. Success came more slowly with the men’s team in a two steps forward, one step back sort of fashion, finally earning a berth to the NCAA tournament in 2005, Rothert’s eight in charge. He had been developing a dynamic attack and when his defense also improved the program started going places reaching the Sweet 16 that first year in the tournament and then making back-to-back trips to the Final Four in 2007 and 2008 as he establish Loras as one of Division III’s top programs.

Seniors' 4-year Record (through Nov. 18)

Messiah: 86-3-3 (.951) overall | NCAA's ('09,'10,'11,'12): 12-1-1, Final Four - '12, Champion - '09,'10

Loras: 75-14-6 (.821) overall | NCAA's ('09,'10,'11,'12): 8-3-1, Sweet 16 - '09,'10, Final Four - '12

Experience

Messiah: This is the least experienced squad that Messiah has taken to the Final Four since 2000. The juniors, three of whom start, were champions in 2010 and the seniors, two of whom start, add the 2009 title to their resumes. But with a roster that includes six freshmen and seven sophomores, over half the team and seven of the starters had never won an NCAA game before this year. However, if there is any substitute for experience, daily team practices at Messiah have to be it. Looking at the other three teams in this year’s Final Four, the Falcons have no real experience deficit.

Loras: Loras made the Sweet 16 in both 2009 and 2010, and since eights starters are juniors and seniors as well as a majority of the top-used reserves, this team can call upon that experience. Four current starters were first choices already back in 2010, and nearly all the primary substitutes from that year are still in the squad. Consequently, even with a balanced class mix and three sophomore starters, this team does not lack experience. This could be the ideal mix and why they have made it this far.

Players to Watch

Messiah: AM Brian Ramirez (So.) - 6g, 10a | AM Jeremy Payne (So.) - 15g, 9a | CF Josh Woods (Jr.) - 10g 8a | LW Jack Thompson (So.) - 10g, 10a | RW Mike Kovach (So.) - 11g, 6a | CB Carter Robbins (So.) | RB Logan Thompson (Sr.) | GK Brandon West (So.) - 0.29 GAA, .875 Sv. Pct.

Loras: M Kevin Cavers (Sr.) - 8g, 8a | F Brad Joiner (Jr.) - 8g, 3a | M Erik Berkomitz (Jr.) - 8g, 1a | D Malcolm Calbert (Sr.) | D Dan Figura (Jr.) | M Johnny Rummelhart (So.) - 6g, 4a | GK Dylan Milkent (Jr.) - 0.45 GAA, 0.848 Sv. Pct.

Analysis

Ranked no. 1 and no. 2, the Messiah-Loras match-up may be the most anticipated semifinal since Trinity and Messiah finally crossed paths in a 2007 semifinal. Of course, that may be unfair to the first Messiah-Loras semifinal encounter in 2008. That year both teams had demonstrated vulnerability—Loras with four regular season losses, Messiah needing overtime three times in advancing to the Final Four—and a balanced, down-to-the-wire fight was expected. That never materialized as Messiah held the Loras’ attack to just four shots while they got their typical number of shots to gain the 3-0 victory, their largest of that year’s championship run.

Beyond their rankings and the rematch of 5 years ago, what also makes this a mouth-watering treat is the numerous similarities between the two teams. Both are deep, talented squads and both coaches make extensive use of their benches expecting significant minutes and contributions from their reserves. Both teams are possession-oriented, attacking sides with great midfield play. Both teams expect to have a majority of possession and to control play, proving the adage that the best defense is a good offense. Both get goals from a host of players making it hard for opponents to focus on one or two players without getting burned elsewhere. Finally, both teams have had finishing issues as mentioned above that keep them from being complete teams—nearly unstoppable when the shots are going in, but sometimes letting out-played opponents hang around deep into the game.

Given that each squad is very deep, neither team can expect to wear the other out or gain a significant mismatch when substitutes are on the field. Loras might have more speed than Messiah, and if so, an advantage they will want to try to exploit. If you can be critical of a team sporting a 0.35 GAA, this isn’t the fastest or most organized Messiah defense we have seen in the past decade and York showed that they can be beaten. If possession is fairly evenly shared, Messiah will be forced to play more defense than usual and their defensive vulnerabilities will be tested much more often. If Loras can hold their own in the midfield battle, they should feel good about getting their looks and goal-scoring opportunities. Then it is a matter of finishing when it counts.

Messiah can’t expect to have as much possession as they are used to, so they need to take better advantage of their opportunities, maybe being quicker to pull the trigger instead of always looking for a better shot. They have players that can strike a good ball from outside the area and yet it seems an underutilized aspect of their attack. Loras’ keeper Milkent is good, but a .848 save percentage suggests that the Falcons don’t need the perfect shot to beat him.

Who is better prepared for this match-up? Loras played Wheaton, UW-Platteville, and Dominican in the regular season and the first two again in their Sectional after getting past North Park in the second round. That’s probably a stronger set of games than Messiah has faced. Those teams averaged about 18 to 20 shots per game and 7.5 to 9.3 SOG per game; besides the sectional final against Wheaton, Loras held those teams to about 10 shots and 4 to 5 on frame. Can they do the same to Messiah who typically gets off even more shots (23 per game) and places more on frame (9.7)?

Messiah’s only tests that would seem to match some of those faced by Loras are the clashes with York. Through 90 minutes, York held Messiah to 15 shots in both meetings, eight below their average but still several more than the toughest opponents managed on Loras. Messiah did put 7 shots on goal by the end of regulation in the NCAA re-match and Loras can’t expect to win if they allow Messiah that many. Looked at from the other direction, York’s season averages of 20.0 shots, 9.2 SOG, and 2.45 goals per game are very similar to Loras’ 19.3 shots, 9.0 SOG, and 2.76 goal per game. In regulation, Messiah held York to 11 shots, 4 on target in September and 8 shots, 5 on goal at sectionals, basically half what York (and Loras) average. And yet Messiah needed a 108th minute sudden-victory goal and a penalty kick triumph to get the better of York.

All that points to a very even match. Overtime would not be a surprise. Messiah has gotten better production from their forwards while Loras has the speed to ask questions of Messiah’s backline. If either team can gain an advantage in the midfield battle, they would obviously be favored to win, but it still comes down to finishing and neither team has been as consistent with putting the ball in the back of the net as they’d like to be this season.

Other Previews: Men's Semifinal 2 Women's  Semifinal 1 | Semifinal 2

Comments or feedback for the author?  Email Christan Shirk.

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