November 21, 2011

The San Antonio Eight

By Christan Shirk

Cover photo: William Smith Herons celebrate victory and a spot in the Final Four (by Kevin Colion)

This weekend’s sectionals pared the thirty-two men’s and women’s Sweet 16 teams down to the eight teams that will participate in the joint Final Four in San Antonio in two weeks time.  On the women’s side three of the four top seeds held serve and advanced while the men only had two top seeds reach sectionals, only one of which survived the weekend.  

Women’s Final Four 

No. 1 Messiah emerged from a bracket that included two untied, undefeated teams in Amherst and Johns Hopkins.  Those two collided in the opposite sectional semifinal while Messiah hosted New Paltz St., possibly the most unlikely member of the Sweet 16.  Messiah did dominate the first-time tournament participant in shots (25-2), SOG (15-2), and corner kicks (11-1), but the underdogs kept the Falcons off the scoreboard for nearly 72 minutes, evidence of the defensive effectiveness that allowed the Hawks to win the SUNYAC tournament on a pair of 1-0 shutouts, keep 11th-ranked Lynchburg from scoring in the first round, and hold off Rowan in the second round after conceding just 9 minutes in.  However, Messiah’s long-coming goal was all that was needed as New Paltz didn’t manage a single shot in the second half.  It was 7th-ranked Amherst, 2-0 winners in the battle of top ten teams, that stood between Messiah and their eighth straight Final Four. Despite Messiah taking the lead in the 16th minute, Amherst gave Messiah all it could handle and became just the second team this year to outshoot the Falcons, the other being William Smith who dealt Messiah its only blemish (a 0-0 tie) and have reached the Final Four themselves.  It was exactly the battle to be expected between two undefeated teams who are both among the five winningest teams (by percentage) in the tournament’s history. As the NESCAC champions were forced to take more risks to grab an equalizer, Messiah would score two more in the final ten minutes sandwiched around an Amherst tally, just the fourth the Falcons conceded all year.

No. 2 William Smith, hosts of their sectional, had to get past a pair of ranked NESCAC schools to reach their ninth Final Four.    Participating in a record 22nd tournament (tied with Ithaca), William Smith entered this year’s tournament as one of six undefeated teams while their sectional semifinal opponent, No. 20 Middlebury, was carrying 3 losses and 3 ties.  However, the NESCAC’s #2 seed was first on the board with a 9th minute tally, just the second time the Herons had been scored on all season.  Their response took just six minutes, leveling the score before going in front a short 3 minutes later.  That would prove to be the game-winner as the two sides went scoreless the rest of the way.  The win, their 19th of the season, broke the school record and place them in an Elite 8 contest against No. 18 Williams who edged 6th-ranked and previously unbeaten Emory in overtime.  After back-to-back one-goal wins, the Herons didn’t have to sweat this one out after converting shots in the 15th and 18th minutes while limiting the NESCAC runner-up to a mere four shots all game.  Insurance goals in the 66th and 87th minutes proved unnecessary to punch their ticket to San Antonio.

Unranked Ithaca, who wasn’t even supposed to be in the Sweet 16, certainly wasn’t expected to advance any further than that in a bracket with three top ten teams in Trinity (Tx.), Hardin-Simmons, and Cal Lutheran.  Geography played no small role in how things shook out, first by pitting the No. 3 and No. 5 ranked teams, both from Texas, already in the second round.  Then, it was Ithaca’s good fortune that fellow upstate New York school Cortland St. upset favored Case Western in round two paving the way for the Bombers to host the sectional that probably never had a chance of going to the winner of the Texas showdown.  It was the top seed and yet-unblemished Trinity who would have to make the trip to Ithaca and the hosts managed to stymie the visiting Tigers who had not been shutout all season, being held to one goal just once.  Scoreless through ninety minutes and again after the first overtime period, Ithaca would record the second big upset of their bracket—Santa Cruz over Cal Lutheran being the other—when they found the back of the net early in the second extra period.  Though not as noteworthy, Cortland St. joined Ithaca as unexpected members of the Elite 8 with a 2-0 won over Concodria-Moorhead to set up an in-state rematch of an early season encounter won 4-1 by visiting Ithaca.  Now the hosts, the Bombers would get on the board early with a 4th minute tally and double their advantage in the 23rd minute, a 2-0 lead they managed to defend until the final whistle, earning a sixth-ever trip to the Final Four out of a record-tying 22 years having participated in the tournament.

8th-ranked Wheaton (Ill.) participating in their 14th straight tournament (second only to TCNJ), would have to overcome UW-Whitewater and Washington U. to make it back to the Final Four for the first time since their run of three straight from 2006 to 2008.  The top seed in their bracket, the Thunder had cruised in rounds one and two and expectantly were chosen as sectional hosts.  UW-Whitewater who was participating in their first-ever tournament has advanced further than expected by eliminating Wartburg on PK’s in the second round.  And they would prove a tough opponent for the Thunder, limiting their shots to half their season average, but Wheaton’s efficiency in front of goal proved too much, turning five first half shots into a 3-0 lead at intermission.  A goal 10 minutes after the break padded the lead and a quick reply by the Warhawks was all they would manage.  No. 13 Washington U. earned their spot in the Elite 8 by completing a late 2-1 comeback win against St. Benedict after conceding in the opening minutes of the game.  Against Wheaton it would be their turn to score early, taking their hosts by surprise just 24 seconds into the contest.  They would double their advantage in the 58th minute which seemed like enough for the win as the Thunder were generating precious few shots on frame to that point.  However, the role reversal for Washington U. continued, as they were victimized by a daring but effective line-up change by Wheaton that thrust their sweeper into the front line resulting in three goals in three minutes, the first two headed in by the attacking sweeper.  The Bear’s 3-goal lead turned into a 1-goal deficit before they knew what hit them and they would not recover.  Wheaton tacked on a fourth for good measure with four minutes remaining as they booked their place in San Antonio, their sixth trip to the Final Four.

Men’s Final Four

No. 6 Ohio Wesleyan was the only team to avoid the curse of the first round bye, and as top seed hosted a sectional consisting of two Sweet 16 surprises, Hope and Luther, in the other semifinal and No. 8 Ohio Northern who would take on the Bishops.  Ohio Northern might have been the only team to have out-played Ohio Wesleyan during the season despite falling by a 3-1 score, and were one of the hottest teams having won twelve straight with both their offense and defense playing well.  The opening half hour was a stalemate between two top ten sides that knew each other well, but in the final 10 minutes of the half the Polar Bears put the Bishops on their heels and their goal less than 2 minutes before the break gave them a deserved lead.  Then they shocked Ohio Wesleyan but poking in another with 13 ticks left on the first half clock.   Ohio Wesleyan increased their offensive pressure after the interval, but as 15, 20, 25 minutes passed without a goal, it became harder to imagine them overturning the 2-goal deficit.  Legendary Coach Jay Martin, closing in on the all-time record for victories by a collegiate men’s soccer coach, adjusted the team formation to add a third forward to the attack and it soon paid off when a well-worked give-and-go narrowed the deficit to one in the 71st minute.  With the same approach came the equalizer six minutes later and it was game-on.  Ohio Northern tried to steady themselves but four minutes from time Travis Wall demonstrated why he’s a POY-candidate when he dribbled three defenders before burying a tough angle shot into the far upper 90 around a well-positioned keeper for the lead and the win.   

The sectional final pitted them against Hope, the surprise of the Elite 8, PK winners over Luther in a very balanced and competitive match.  In the first half, Ohio Wesleyan would play like the favorites they were, scoring in just the third minute and it would not have been unfair to Hope had the Bishops extended their lead.  Nevertheless it was just a 1-goal difference at the half, but eight minutes after the break Wall again score an important and timely goal for a 2-0 advantage that seemed likely to hold up despite Hope finally coming to life to lead in shots taken the rest of the way with Ohio Wesleyan not needing to take any risks.  With under four to play, a Hope goal made for an interesting finish but the Bishops wouldn’t be beaten again.  The 1998 champions will participate in their ninth Final Four with a chance to simultaneously win title number two and make Coach Martin the all-time winningest men’s soccer coach with a pair of victories taking him to 608. 

When the brackets were released No. 23 Montclair St. looked set for a sectional semifinal clash with Messiah that would be their fourth tournament encounter in five years, none to date ending in the Red Hawk’s favor.  So Neumann’s upset of the 8-time champions might have been greeted by sighs of relief in Montclair, NJ, even if one must always be wary of the Cinderella.  No. 10 Amherst was chosen as the host of the Messiah-less sectional and would play No. 4 Stevens in the other semifinal.  Montclair St., by scoring just 70 seconds into their semifinal, seemingly squashed sentiments of destiny and eliminated the confidence boost Neumann would have gained the longer they could have stayed in the match.  However, Neumann, who hadn’t conceded a goal prior to that in the tournament, did not wilt under the pressure of having to play from behind for the first time.  They battled as they had against Messiah and Salisbury and playing better after the break they found themselves very much in the match culminating in the equalizer in the 70th minute.  It was nervy times for Montclair St. as Neumann pressed for the go-ahead goal with momentum on their side, but the Red Hawks would score the decisive goal in the 81st minute and fend off Neumann’s late efforts to advance to the Elite 8 and a date with Stevens who stole a 2-1 win from the hosts who had more of the possession and created a majority of the chances. It proved to be an even match between the two Jersey schools who had tussled in the second round of the 2009 tournament—a 4-0 Stevens win—and neither team could find the breakthrough in the opening stanza.  Stevens created more chances after the interval, but it was Montclair St. who got the all important first goal, scoring with just over 16 minutes left in regulation.  There were few chances for either side after that and the Red Hawks saw out the game to secure their first-ever berth in the Final Four.

Unranked Calvin had to travel to California and battle hosts Redlands and ASC-champs Texas-Tyler for a second trip to the Final Four in three years.  Their 4-0 win over No. 5 Loras in the second round might have been the story of the tournament to that point if not for Messiah and Christopher Newport being upset by upstarts Neumann and Randolph who would battle Texas-Tyler in the other semifinal. With huge fan support, the Knights took on the host and got the dream start with a goal 24 seconds into the contest when Redlands were sloppy with a pass between defenders allowing Calvin’s Zach Willis to steal the ball and shot for the early score.  The first half was evenly played with the unfortunate miscue being the only thing separating the sides at the break.  Redlands was awarded a penalty kick less than two minutes after the restart and converted to level things at one a piece.  A few good chances fell to both sides in the second half but neither could capitalize.  Calvin looked good for an overtime victory as they outshot Redlands 11 to 4 over the two extra periods and forced the Redlands’ keeper to make 6 overtime saves to force penalties.  Calvin was perfect from the spot, advancing to face Texas-Tyler who ended Randolph’s unexpected run in their first-ever tournament when they overturned a 1-0 halftime deficit with a second-half equalizer and a golden-goal early in the second overtime period.  Texas-Tyler would have the upper hand for much of the first half hour, but a bicycle kick would give Calvin the game’s first tally in the 35th minute which the Patriots deservedly cancelled out five minute later for a 1-1 halftime score.  Tyler was again the stronger side after the break and were finally rewarded in the 66th minute to put Calvin down 2-1 and the Knight’s were truly on the brink of elimination when they were reduced to ten men by a 83rd minute red card ejection.  Galvanized by their dire situation, Calvin actually seemed to play better and sent both teams to their second overtime in as many days when they punched one in off a scramble in front of goal. Calvin might have played their best soccer in overtime and when a volleyed shot off a corner kick found the back of net early in the second extra session, they were off for San Antonio having advanced further than expected for the third straight season.

No. 22 Oneonta St. was overlooked all season until the final pre-tournament rankings when their SUNYAC title finally lifted them into the Top 25.  It’s easy to argue that the prior oversight was unfair: while St. Lawrence and Christopher Newport sat in the Top 5 most of the year, the team that had scored half the goals conceded by the Saints during the regular season and had given the Captains their only blemish was ignored despite also making an undefeated run through the SUNYAC slate.  It was with a 12-game winning streak that the Red Dragons were reunited with No. 3 St. Lawrence in the sectional semifinal.  The top seeded and undefeated Saints created the better chances in a scoreless first half, before the game opened up more in the second stanza with both sides taking more shots and each frequently testing the other’s keeper.  It took a strong, well-placed shot from outside the box to beat St. Lawrence’s excellent keeper and give the visitors a precious 1-0 lead with under 17 minutes to play, but it was a short-lived advantage as playmaker Sam DeMello once again showed why he is an All-American—maybe even a POY candidate this year—when he nodded home a cross off a short corner kick minutes later with the hosts twice almost grabbing the game-winner in the closing minutes.  The momentum returned to Oneonta in the first overtime period and as the second extra session clicked down below 4 minutes, a deflection off a Saint’s defender fell to Oneonta freshman Justin Rivera who turned and fired home from the top of the box for the win.  

Another somewhat under-appreciated side, Rutgers-Camden, advanced to challenge Oneonta for a berth in the Final Four.  All season long Camden had made the most of their chances, efficiently requiring fewer chances than their opponents to score and usually win.  But the Scarlet Raptors usually high shots-on-goal percentage was not evident in the first half against Oneonta as none of their eight shots forced a save while five saves were required to keep Oneonta off the scoreboard going into halftime.  Another gritty win for the NJAC champions seemed possible when their leading scorer Mitch Grotti surprised the Red Dragons in the 53rd minute when he deftly corralled a loose ball and turned into the box to quickly fire over the keeper for the 1-0 lead.  Oneonta continued to have the upper hand though most of the second half and they finally got a deserved equalizing goal 13 minutes from time.  The majority of the chances were theirs the rest of the way, but it was only in the 107th minute of the second overtime period that they managed to put the only ledger that matters in their favor when a loose ball in the box was banged home to send the Red Dragons to the Final Four in their first tournament appearance.


Comments or feedback for the author?  Email Christan Shirk.

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