Men's Final Four team previews
2010 NCAA Division III
Lynchburg College Hornets
Head coach: Chris Yeager, ninth season
Lynchburg College is located in Lynchburg, Va., about 180 miles southwest of Washington D.C., in the Central Virginia foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A comprehensive college with a strong liberal arts and sciences tradition, the college offers 38 majors; 46 minors; 13 pre-professional undergraduate programs; professional programs in business, education, communication studies, and health sciences; and graduate programs in education, business, English, history, and music. Founded in 1903 by ministers and businessmen of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the college went by the name Virginia Christian College until changing to the current name in 1919. Total current enrollment is 2,572.
As defending ODAC champion and coming off its best season ever, Lynchburg was even with Hampden-Sydney in first place votes in the preseason coaches' poll, both narrowly ahead of Roanoke and Virginia Wesleyan, who have been the conference's top two teams for about a decade. Lynchburg finished the 2009 conference schedule tied for second and as the third seed won three straight to grab the automatic berth to the NCAA tournament. With a school record 16 wins against just one loss, they proceeded to win their first ever NCAA tournament game in nine tries and came within three minutes of knocking off a strong Christopher Newport, but their opening minute tally was cancelled in the closing minutes. Penalty kicks did not go in their favor after overtime resolved nothing, and the curtain closed on the Hornets with a final record of 17-2-3.
Under the guidance of coach Chris Yeager, now in his ninth season in charge, Lynchburg had established itself as a top ODAC side and now they sought to solidify themselves as a Top 25 caliber program. They opened the 2010 season with a disappointing loss to Methodist when their finishing did not match the offense they generated, and their non-conference results left it unclear if this year's team could really expect to match what last year's accomplished. In their biggest tests they were significantly overmatched by Salisbury (0-0 tie) and York (3-0 loss) and in an even match with Emory they fell 1-0. All told, they went 3-3-1 outside the ODAC, being shut out four times and outscored 8-5, needing overtime for two of their wins.
In conference play, however, they won nine straight, outscoring opponents 25-3, to clinch the top seed for the playoffs before slipping up in their final regular season match. This usually would be impressive, but it was a down year for the ODAC as neither Roanoke nor Virginia Wesleyan distinguished themselves in non-conference action and co-favorites for the title, Hampden-Sydney, were never again over .500 after winning their season opener. Roanoke and Virginia Wesleyan fell at the first hurdle in the ODAC tournament and Lynchburg was hardly challenged in their three playoffs games, outscoring Randolph-Macon, Randolph, and surprise finalist Hampden-Sydney by a combined 12-1 to repeat as champions and assure their return to the NCAAs.
Perhaps. Giant Slayers? Definitely.
Lynchburg found themselves slotted into the toughest bracket of the NCAA tournament, and their season gave no reason to think they would do anything more than perhaps a first-round win against last year's Cinderella: Transylvania. That they accomplished with a first half goal and a pair in the 71st and 75th minutes before conceding one late. A re-match with No. 9 Emory, who had a first-round bye, followed and few expected Lynchburg to improve upon the early-season loss to book its place in the Sweet 16 for the first time. All seemed as expected when Emory opened the scoring early in the second half having taken double the shots of the underdog, but Lynchburg did not give up nor give in and scored twice for the shock win on a defense that had only conceded six all season, two coming in the regular season finale with the UAA title already decided the day prior.
The most unlikely semifinalist since 2006's New York University, Lynchburg wasn't the beneficiary of a relatively easy path as most Final Four surprises are. They have combined a bend-but-not-break perseverance with timely and efficient scoring to emerge from the toughest bracket, and semifinal adversary Bowdoin should be wary.
Top Players, Pivotal
This Lynchburg squad lacks a high scoring striker and gets goals by committee. Their decent 2.10 GSA coming into the tournament was inflated by the relative ease of ODAC play, and yet no player scored more than 7 goals. Twelve different players have tallied game-winning goals. So it's not so surprising that their senior leader on defense, Hunter Smith, was named ODAC Player of the Year. The defense has withstood some good offenses in the NCAAs and yielded just two goals in four games, and he's due a fair deal of credit for that. He's had help, of course, and freshman net minder Michael Releford has become one of the tournament's emerging stars. He hasn't posted incredible numbers in his first season at the collegiate level, but down the stretch in conference and post-season play he had risen to the occasion, garnering first-team All-ODAC honors. Senior Zach Ward helps shore up the back line while senior Michael Abbonizio has led the attack with 7 goals, including four game-winners, and 4 assists. Both also were first-team All-ODAC selections as well. Senior forward Shawn Bender has scored twice in the tournament after just three prior goals, getting things started for the Hornets in their first round win over Transylvania and then the game-winner in the upset of Emory. Senior Donald Hart III has done most of his work coming off the bench, chipping in a team-leading eight goals, six in the last ten games, though none have been crucial to the outcome since opening his account with a game-tying goal back in September.
From Soccer Frontrunner
to Afterthought and Back Again
The now legendary William H. "Bill" Shellenberger introduced Lynchburg College and its community to soccer after his arrival in 1952. His passion was infectious and in 1954 a men's soccer program was established becoming just the fourth team in Virginia to play the sport at the collegiate level. Shellenberger took over as head coach in 1956 and led the Hornets to 31 consecutive winning seasons (1956 to 1987) and for a brief spell from 1978 to 1979 was the winningest collegiate soccer coach in all divisions, men's and women's. He retired in 1989 after his first and only losing season at the helm, finishing with a 371-167-48 (.674) record and the most all-time Division III wins, a distinction held for about four years.
Lynchburg departed from the Dixie conference in 1976 to become a charter member of the Virginia College Conference whose name was quickly changed to Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) before beginning operations in the fall of 1976. Once again Lynchburg dominated the early years of the conference, winning the first nine soccer championships of the conference in which they have remained to this day. Their first conference loss came in its seventh season. On a national level, Lynchburg won three NAIA District 29 Championships in 1970, 1972, and 1973, and participated in seven of the first nine Division III national tournaments. However, they found the competition outside their conference and state more difficult and failed to win a single NCAA tournament game during this period
Soccer was growing and during the 1970s the program was no longer able to stay ahead of the curve. Then, in the '80s, they fell behind the pack. The team went 23 years without an appearance in the NCAA tournament from 1983 through 2005 during which time they had 16 losing seasons starting with Shellenberger’s last. Three coaches tried unsuccessfully to reverse the trend as Lynchburg became an ODAC afterthought. It was the 2002 hiring of Chris Yeager, a standout player for conference rivals Virginia Wesleyan in the early '90’s, that ushered in a new era at Lynchburg. After a 3-13-2 rookie season, Yeager quickly brought the Hornet program back to a competitive level in the ODAC, reaching the conference tournament final in his third season in charge (2004) and winning the title in his fifth season (2006) with a 14-5-2 overall mark. Competitiveness on a national level became the next step in the program’s transformation and winning the 2009 ODAC titles gave them a chance to test and prove themselves. It yielded their first ever tournament win before being eliminated on penalty kicks in the second round. Unfortunately Shellenberger was no longer around to witness that milestone as he passed away on Sept. 9 of that season at age 88, and while his legacy can stand on its own, it is fitting that the program has returned to the prominence it once held under his watch.
By D3soccer.com writer Chris Shirk