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November 28, 2012

Men's Semifinal 2 Preview

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

By Christan Shirk

NCAA Division III Men's Soccer - National Semifinal 2

Friday, November 30 — 1:30 pm CT

No. 7  Williams (16-1-4)

vs.

No. 5  Ohio Northern (24-2-0)

How they reached the Final Four

Williams: Pool C At-large Berth | 1st Rnd: W2-1 Thomas (H) | 2nd Rnd: W2-1(ot) St. Lawrence (H) | Sweet 16: W1-0 Brandeis (N) | Elite 8: T0-0(2ot)(4-3 pks) Amherst (A)

Ohio Northern: OAC Champions (AQ) | 1st Rnd: W1-0 Thomas More (N) | 2nd Rnd: W3-1 Carnegie Mellon (A) | Sweet 16: W4-1 Susquehanna (N) | Elite 8: W2-1 Montclair State (N)

2012 Statistical Overview

Williams: 16-1-4 (.857) | 1.58 GSA, 0.51 GAA (+1.07) | Avg. OWP: .623 | Last Ten: 7-1-2

Ohio Northern: 24-2-0 (.923) | 3.15 GSA, 0.54 GAA (+2.61) | Avg. OWP: .551 | Last Ten: 10-0-0

Williams Season Review

In 2011, Williams missed out on the NCAA tournament for just the third time in 19 years, but for the second time in four years. Sandwiched between was a trip to the Final Four in 2009, their first since their title-winning campaign in 1995. The tournament absences are partially down to playing in the tough NESCAC, but 2008 represented their lowest winning percentage since 1981 and the offense in 2011 was probably the program’s weakest since that same 1981 season. Their 21 goals scored came out to an extremely low 1.31 scoring average on 15.6 shots per game. Where were the goals going to come from in 2012? Would they spend a second straight season out of the national spotlight?

Much hope was placed in freshman Mohammed Rashid to ignite the offense and it hardly seemed misplaced when Rashid scored twice in his collegiate debut to hand Coach Russo win no. 400. The attack would improve, but not by leaps and bounds and scoring would remain a real question mark throughout the season. The Ephs would win their next three, but needing overtime to slip by Hamilton, who would only win four times all year, was not encouraging, Williams would be no stranger to overtime, playing extra minutes in four of their next six matches.

At least the defense was proving to be pretty stingy, giving them a chance even if the offense was going to struggle. A scoreless tie against Wesleyan was the first of four straight shutouts posted, with NESCAC leaders Amherst being last victim in that streak. Thanks to averaging nearly 4 goals per game against just one total goal allowed, Amherst was a perfect 8-0-0 coming in and they would put in a dominating performance from start to finish. The Williams would bend (25 shots allowed, 6 on frame) but not break and in doing so made a statement that they would need to be reckoned with. The Ephs themselves were undefeated at that point with a 6-0-2 record.

Williams would win their next seven matches with a streak of four shutouts found in the middle of the run, highlighted by a solid 2-0 win over Babson. They were even scoring enough to avoid overtime as their record improved to 13-0-2 overall and 8-0-2. That was good for a share of first-place in the NESCAC with Amherst at the close of the regular season despite the fact that their rivals were by all other measures playing on a different level. The difference would be demonstrated in the conference tourmament where the Ephs would do enough but no more to dispatch of sub-.500 Connecticut and then only advanced to the final via penalty kick shootout versus Tufts. Amherst had no such problems setting up the re-match and when they scored in the 2nd and 16th minutes the writing was on the wall for Williams who needed to keep the game scoreless as long as possible to give themselves a chance.

But they still sported a 13-1-3 record and were highly ranked in the national polls. An at-large berth to the NCAA tournament was duly received and the brackets set them on a collision course with Amherst in the Elite 8 if they could both make it that far. As expected, Williams dominated NAC champion Thomas in round one, but their finishing wasn’t good enough to put the game out of reach despite taking 26 shots, twelve of which were on frame. The last thing Williams needed against St. Lawrence was to have a freshman making his first collegiate start to score his first collegiate goal 29 seconds into the match to force Williams to play from behind. The Saints were without their All-American playmaker whose season got cut short by injury, but they still were the better side as the game entered the last quarter hour still 1-0. The Eph’s freshman Rashid came to the rescue with a game-extending score in the 81st minute and for the fourth time in 2012 they bagged an overtime goal for the win.

With Amherst hosting the Sectional, the surprising Brandeis stood in William’s path. After a stalemated opening stanza, the Ephs broke the tie in the 64th minute and the defense turned away the increased Brandeis pressure for an equalizer. For a third time it would be Amherst-Williams, and given how the first two encounters played out it just felt like the advantage would be with Williams even if Amherst was playing better soccer. And so it was: Amherst would take 23 shots to Williams 7, putting 4 on goal to Williams’ 2, forcing 9 corner kicks while conceding just 1, but the Williams defense would battle for a 0-0 draw and penalties would determine the outcome. 4 to 3 the Ephs, who had managed no goals in 310 minutes against their conference rivals, won the shootout and a place in the Final Four, the least likely of the four teams Coach Russo had guided that fall.

Ohio Northern Season Review

At halftime of last year’s Sweet 16 match, Ohio Northern was looking like a national champion having finished the opening 45 minutes dominating one of the title favorites and their in-state rivals Ohio Wesleyan. A two-goal flurry of excitement in the final two minutes of the half seemed to have them on their way to just their third win over the Bishops in 18 all-time confrontations, having lost yet again when they met during the regular season. But in one of the tournament’s all-time great comebacks, Ohio Wesleyan scored three times in fifteen minutes late in the second half and went on to claim the national title a couple two weekend later. Roster-wise, it should have been the Polar Bears year as Cory Dobkins and Christian Huelsman were still there as seniors to play along side this year’s seniors, but D-III Player of the Year Travis Wall and Coach Jay Martin’s destiny to break the career wins record in the championship match was a misfortunate Sweet 16 date. Could the greatest class in program history come back in 2012 and set a new standard of tournament success? Could they replace the leadership and play-making of All-American midfielder Dobkins as well as Huelsman’s 10 goals and 9 assists?

2012 kicked off with their big guns firing on all cylinders and a freshman forward fitting in from the get-go. Four games into the campaign seniors Nate Bascom and Cameron Johnson had each scored four times while newcomer Keegan Ross did them one better while tallying in each of his first four collegiate matches. Visiting Carnegie Mellon gave them a dose of reality in game five, winning a back-and-forth affair 3-2. Bascom would net five as the Polar Bear would win three straight heading into their annual match with Ohio Wesleyan. Surely the Polar Bears were relishing the chance to let their high-flying offense loose on a Bishop side significantly weakened by graduation, but Wesleyan showed they still had Northern’s number when they out blanked them 2-0. It was the first of just two times that Ohio Northern was outshot in 2012, the second of two times they conceded more than a single goal, and the only time their attack was shutout. It would also be their last loss of the season to date.

Thirteen straight wins, ten by shutout, would get them to 20-2-0 with an OAC title and automatic berth to the big dance. A tenth-minute goal in their tournament opener was a good start, but is was a nervy remaining 80 minutes for the narrow 1-0 win with Thomas More matching the Bears and maybe then some in the second half. That set up a rematch with Carnegie Mellon and it was all Tartans on their home turf for the opening 20 minute culminating in the games first score. That seemed to have awakened the Polar Bears from their funk and they haven’t looked back on their way to the Final Four. They would even the score seven minutes later and score twice in the first quarter hour of the second half for the win.

The road to San Antonio would pass through San Antonio as Trinity was tabbed as Sectional hosts. Befitting their surroundings, the Polars Bears went out like gunslingers of the wild west with a shoot first, ask questions later mentality. 58 shots later, 26 fired on target, and Ohio Northern had made sure that San Antonio hadn’t seen the last of them. Susquehanna tried to keep up in their Sweet 16 match and did manage the game’s first goal, but Ohio Northern only needed six minutes to blast ahead and even one of the nation’s top goaltenders couldn’t prevent the Polar Bears from running the score up to 4-1. Montclair State, winners over the hosts, faired a little better when their keeper did his best All-American impression, but when facing 15 goal-bound shots, 12 saves and help from a teammate isn’t enough. Ohio Northern converted their 23rd shot of the match with under eight minutes to play for the 2-1 win. Their approach was effective, if not efficient, as a new benchmark was set for the program.

Head Coaches

Williams

Mike Russo, 34th year (1979-2012)

Overall: 415-99-59 (.776)

NCAA's (17 of 20 yrs.): 32-13-9 (.676), Champion - '95, Runner-Up - '93, Final Four - '98,'09, Elite 8 - '96,'99,'00,'04,'05

Few coaches can boast the experience and success of Mike Russo who picked up victory number 400 in this season’s opener. His record is impressive enough even if you do not account for the fact that for fourteen years prior to 1993 his teams did not participate in the NCAA tournament due to NESCAC regulations. He wasted no time making a name for Williams on a national level once the conference changed its stance, advancing to the title game the very first year and finishing as champions two years later. Eleven times over the next sixteen years he would guide the Ephs to at least the Sweet 16, reaching the Elite 8 seven times including their Final Four appearance in 2009. Russo’s .776 career winning percentage ranks 5th among active men’s Division III coaches and 7th all-time. His 415 total wins places him 9th among active coaches and 13th all-time.

Ohio Northern

Brent Ridenour, 15th year (1998-2012)

Overall: 218-89-24 (.695)

NCAA's (6 of 15 yrs.): 10-4-1 (.700), Elite 8 - '08, Sweet 16 - '11

Brent Ridenour returned to his alma mater as head coach four years after his playing days ended with him holding the career goal scoring record, his 56 goals still unbeaten nearly 20 years later. In his first season, his fourth-seeded Polar Bears reached the conference final for the first time in program history. But results were up and down during his first eight years in charge, with regular season finishes in the OAC ranging from 7th place to co-champs, but no return to the conference final. 2006 was a year of firsts for the program: sole OAC regular season champions, OAC tournament champions, and participation in the NCAA tournament. Despite a let-down in 2007 (they did defeat Ohio Wesleyan for the first time), Ohio Northern had arrived on the national scene making the NCAA tournament every year from 2008 onward with OAC titles in all but the 2009 season. The Polar Bear’s run to the Elite 8 in 2008 was their best finish prior to this year. In mid-September of this year Ridenhour notched his 200th career victory.

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

Williams: 53-11-12 (.776) overall | NCAA's ('09,'10,'12): 6-2-3, Final Four - '12

Ohio Northern: 76-13-7 (.828) overall | NCAA's ('09,'10,'11,'12): 6-2-1, Sweet 16 - '11, Final Four - '12

Experience

Williams: Williams missed out on the NCAA tournament last year and that means that over half of the players that get major minutes for the Ephs had no prior tournament experience coming into this year’s tournament. Only one senior, defender Matt Ratajczak, started in William’s Final Four run in 2009, but three others played a part. In fact, Patrick Ebobisse had an assist and a goal and goalkeeper Than Finan was substituted into both sectional matches for the penalty kick shootouts. So while on the whole the Ephs may have lacked tournament experience, they have some experienced leaders and they have nonetheless made it to the semifinals. Give some, maybe much, credit for that to Coach Russo who certainly does not lack experience.

Ohio Northern: Ohio Northern has participated in the tournament each of the last four years, going one-and-out in 2009 and 2010 before last season’s Sweet 16 appearance. With a senior-heavy squad, Ohio Northern’s starting line-up has probably played as many NCAA minutes as any of the starting eleven’s in the Final Four. Moreover, seven have been in the starting line-up for at least three years with four seniors having started ever since joining the team as freshmen. So the Polar Bears boast the most overall experience of this year’s semifinalists both individually and as a unit.

Players to Watch

Williams: F Mohammed Rashid (Fr.) – 6g, 7a | F User Kushaina (Jr.) – 5g, 1 a | M Patrick Ebobisse (Sr.) – 4g, 5a | M Peter Christman (Sr.) – 2g, 1a | D Noah Grumman (Fr.) – 1g, 0a | D Matt Ratajczak (Sr.) – 2g, 0a | GK Than Finan (Sr.) – 0.45 GAA, .891 save pct.

Ohio Northern: F Nate Bascom (Sr.) – 17g, 16a | F Keegan Ross (Fr.) – 22g, 9a | M Chris Matejka (Sr.) – 8g, 9a | M Cameron Johnson (Sr.) – 12g, 8a | D Austin Windsor (Sr.) – 5g, 2a | D Matt Fleming (Jr.) – 0g, 4a | GK Mac Church (Sr.) – 0.55 GAA, .823 save pct.

Analysis

Williams is crashing the Final Four similarly to how NESCAC rival Middlebury did in 2007 relying on defense among three of the nation’s top offenses. That might be an oversimplification of the participants because all defenses were extremely good in 2007 (GAA’s ranging from 0.23 to 0.41), just as they all are very good this year (GAA’s ranging from 0.34 to 0.54). In fact, Loras was stingier than Middlebury in 2007, while Trinity conceded the fewest shots, but Middlebury’s schedule was tougher than the others. What is undeniable is that Middlebury in 2007 did not and Williams in 2012 does not have an attack comparable to the other three semifinalists. Middlebury scored at just a 1.91 pace while the others were finding the net at least 2.69 times per game. This year’s Williams is even further off the pace as their paltry 1.58 GSA pales in comparison to Lora’s 2.80 mark not to mention Messiah and Ohio Northern who are up over 3 goals a game. Again, strength of schedule certainly skew the stats to some extent, but it’s clear that Williams can least afford to go a goal down this weekend.

Does Williams really have a chance to repeat Middlebury’s feat? Could they claim the title without scoring a single goal? They have posted just 10 shutouts while Middlebury had recorded 15 by this point in their run. Middlebury conceded 11 shots per game while Williams allows 14, but only 4.4 of them are on target versus 4.9 for Middlebury. Goalkeeper Finan is very good (.891 sv pct.), but Middlebury’s Brian Bush was even better (.935 sv. pct. which was still second to Lora’s platoon with their combined 944 sv. pct.—no wonder that game went to penalty kicks scoreless!). Stats comparison aside, the way the Ephs shutout Amherst for 110 minutes to advance out of their sectional shows that with focus and proper game-planning they could get the results they need. Couch Russo will no doubt have a game plan in pace to try to give his charges the best chance of neutralizing the Ohio Northern attack and advancing to the final. The bigger question might be whether his players will bring the same focus and intensity that a rivalry match—and a third one of the year, at that—naturally does.

Harking back to that 2007 Final Four once again, Messiah and Loras are both back this year and Ohio Northern replaces Trinity (Tx.) as this year’s third high-scoring offense. As in 2007, the two established national powers (Trinity and Messiah then, Loras and Messiah now) meet in one semifinal while the emerging power (Ohio Northern now, Loras then) got paired with the defense-dependent team in the other game. The Polar Bears will be out to avoid the same fate that befell Loras whose attack was partially stymied in 2007. If shots are limited, it’s good to have players that convert at a high rate to take advantage of the chance they do get. Keegan Ross provides that (.298 shot pct.), but Loras had Matt Pucci (.274 shot pct.) in 2007 and that didn’t help since Middlebury held him to just one shot. However, Ross has even more help than Pucci had.

How will William’s win over Amherst translate to Ohio Northern? Amherst was averaging 20 shots per game, 7.3 on target which yielded 2.60 goals on average. Ohio Northern takes 18.9 shots per game, 9.6 on frame, resulting in an average of 3.15 goals. Furthermore, the Polar Bears place over 50% of their shots on goal, Amherst just 37%, with actual shot percentage also favoring the Ohio Northern 17% to 14%. Looking more specifically at the players who take the most shots, Ohio Northern’s Keegan Ross, Nate Bascom, and Cameron Johnson score on 22% of their attempts. By comparison, Amhert’s Spencer Noon, Jae Heo, and Frederico Sucre convert on 16% of their chances. On average this season Williams has given up a lot of shots (14.1 per game), basically double the other three semifinalists who give up between 6.2 and 7.3 shots per game. William’s 4.4 SOG allowed per game is also the highest in the group. In a bend, but don’t break fashion, Williams escaped Amherst in the semifinal despite conceding 18 shots, 3 on frame, in regulation (23 and 4 total with overtime). Williams did reduce Amherst’s shots on goal and they will certainly want to do the same with Ohio Northern. But Ohio Northern can be expected to do better than Amherst if allowed 18 shots.

Coach Russo did make a major adjustment in the Sectional final, starting a freshman, who had only gotten minutes at forward or midfield to date, at outside back position to try to combat Amherst’s speed on the wings. It’s not clear whether that made a difference in cutting down Amherst’s shots on goal and earning the shutout. And we will have to see if that adjusted line-up is used again in the semifinal and whether that it helps to slow down the Polar Bear express.

For Ohio Northern, the biggest question might be whether they can avoid any deer-in-the-headlights effect with this being their first Final Four. It is not only not a low-key regular season game, but it’s even a different atmosphere than the earlier rounds and not all teams are able to just treat it like any other game when the step onto the field. Being a senior-heavy squad should minimize their risk of being awed by the moment and maybe caught off-guard early in the game. It would be more worrisome if they were facing a high-powered offense that could better take advantage of any lack of focus or distraction on the Polar Bears part, but that concern is lessened against a low-scoring side like Williams.

Williams takes 16 shots per game, but only converts on 12%. Although Ohio Northern isn’t sporting the best defensive number of the semifinalists, they are still very good with a 0.54 GAA, allowing 6.8 shots per game, 3.4 of which are on target. That translated to 15 shutouts in 26 games. Goalkeeper Mac Church rates the lowest of the four keepers in San Antonio with just a .823 save percentage, so he wouldn’t be expected to single-handedly “win” the game for the Polar Bear. Ohio Northern will expect their first line of defense to be ball possession and forcing Williams to spend a majority of the game defending. When needing to defend, Ohio Northern will expect to be able to keep Williams off the scoreboard.

Because of the contrasts between the teams, it should be an interesting match. Ohio Northern showed at sectionals that they can still get off a lot of shots and test the keeper frequently. If they can do so again, they will be hard to keep off the scoreboard and that would force Williams to make something happen offensively, something they haven’t proven capable of doing on a consistent basis. But don’t expect a Russo coached William’s team to panic. They held their nerve against St. Lawrence in round two and finally got the equalizer late before winning in overtime. The Ephs have only lost once this season and have advanced to the Final Four, so one would be foolish to discount their chances. Ohio Northern needs to make sure they don’t get frustrated if they get fewer chances. Their shooting accuracy has been excellent this season and they simply need to take advantage of the chances they do get, which should be enough to put a goal or two into the net for the win.

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

Comments or feedback for the author?  Email Christan Shirk.

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