Will Messiah get it done?
|Messiah junior Danny Thompson in Saturday's win over Medaille - photo credit: Messiah athletics|
By D3soccer.com contributor Chris Shirk
There were no shocks or surprises as the two-time defending champions and winners of seven of the last 10 titles took care of business with little trouble in a 2-0 Sweet 16 victory over Medaille Saturday afternoon. Medaille were the most surprising member of this year's Sweet 16, but the Cinderella tag can now be passed to Lynchburg, shock 2-0 winner over Trinity. Messiah has hardly had an easy time of it in any of their NCAA matches in the past two title runs, and the Sectional matches have been the closest calls. However, those were against teams that were not only expected to reach sectionals, but had reason to think they belonged in the Final Four. Medaille on the other hand would have needed to punch well above their weight to push Messiah to the limit and instead today's match went exactly as thier respective 2010 resumes suggested it should.
Messiah outshot the Mavericks by a 34 to 9 margin, putting 12 on frame versus just 2. The Falcons controlled the tempo almost from start to finish, forcing Medaille to play defense for long stretches at a time. The final score flattered the underdogs, and credit must be given to their goalkeeper for keeping hope alive longer seemed possible. In tomorrow's sectional final, Merchant Marine should make things more difficult for Messiah. The Mariners are a more physically imposing team and they play with a lot of discipline and character. They were somewhat fortunate to take their lead in the early game as the Muhlenberg keeper probably should have dealt a bit better with a shot not to give up second chance in the middle of the box. But Merchant Marine were the better team for much of the game and the withstood the Muhlenberg onslaught in the final quarter hour of the game to make the Elite 8 for the first time in their history.
So, do the Mariners have any hope against the mighty Falcons? They were the first team this season to score on the nation's second best defense (Stevens). Last weekend they put three in the net against Brockport--the only team to have done that this year. Their overall season statistics would not have suggested either of those occurrences, so they can't be written off. They seem to rise to the occasion and find a way to defy the odds. But Messiah is practically unbeatable this time of year and Merchant Marine, as Medaille, are inferior to many that have tried and failed. And even if their size and discipline hold Messiah at bay for the opening 45 minutes, can they deal with the Falcons’ second half push? The champions are so deep with talent that they can trust their second string with major minutes at nearly all positions allowing them to be extremely fresh and lively when most other times are starting to tire down the stretch.
Eleven weeks ago when Messiah lost their opener to Hobart and lost their top striker to injury for the season, it wasn't clear if this year's edition would be among the favorites for the title come November as has been the case for a decade now. The Falcons had lost most of their defense to graduation meaning a rebuilding project was required there. And losing the striker who the previous year as a freshman was a huge mid-season solution to a lack of goals from the target position meant revisiting the same goal-scoring issue again. From that opening loss, they won game after game, but often in a fashion that reinforced the question marks rather than erased them as they gave up goals in six of their first eight matches and had to come from behind to win three matches that required an overtime goal to get the result. But by the early October showdown with York, Coach McCarty seemed to be finding a backline combination that worked and their first win over their rivals in five years seemed to signal that Messiah might be on track for post-season greatness once again.
Now with a 20-game winning streak and 11 shutouts in their last 13 games, and phenomenal seniors Geoff Pezon and Nick Thompson making their cases for Player of the Year, it's easy to see this Messiah team in the continuum that is 47 wins, just two loses, and two ties in tournament play this century, good for nine Final Fours in the last 10 years and 7 championships. It will be that tradition of success that Merchant Marine will be attempting to defy Sunday. If they managed to do so, it will put them in rare company: 2008's Trinity in the national semifinal, 2003's Salisbury in a regional final penalty kick shootout, and 2001's Redlands in the national semifinal. Merchant Marine might have the mental fortitude to not tremble in the face of such an extraordinary track record, but in purely soccer terms can they manage to make people forget about Lynchburg's Saturday night victory? They get their chance Sunday at 1 p.m.