November 30, 2010

Men's NCAA semifinal preview

Bowdoin and Lynchburg will play in the nation's most lip-smacking matches this year, potentially, for it plays host to two teams that have been forced to shed their 'inferior' status, and defy odds to achieve that which they have to date: reaching the Final Four. Both teams find themselves competing at this stage for the first time in history, both have overcome early setbacks, and both have recorded significant victories en route to their place in the semis. But that is where the parallels end. Unranked Lynchburg is truly the surprise team of the tournament, and while No. 16 Bowdoin has had to beat teams they were unable to beat early on, their spot is not as surprising, especially after receiving a first round bye, and winning the regular season New England Small College Athletic Conference championship, arguably the nations most competitive conference.

Lynchburg's force-at-hand will undoubtedly be their momentum. They pulled-off shock wins against No. 3 Trinity, No. 5 Ohio Wesleyan, and No. 9 Emory and have shown no sign of halting such progression. Even going up a goal early on proved untenable for Emory in keeping Lynchburg's precise attacks at bay. Both Trinity and Ohio Wesleyan paid dearly when throwing caution to the wind in their respective attacks, as Lynchburg seemed all too capable of absorbing any attack, only to crush their rearguard with devastatingly effective counters. Even when Ohio Wesleyan imposed an all-out attack to produce the equalizer, Lynchburg simply used it to manifest it's style of play, creating more chances than in the first half, and putting the nail in the coffin in the dying moments of the match. To beat Bowdoin, they must do the same. Defense could very well be the key this time, but Bowdoin may have trouble in shutting down any scoring threat, Lynchburg's scoring threats hail from all parts of the field. Their potency in front of goal has often gone begging this term, but they've accomplished that faction of the game in crucial moments, and often from different players. How does one shut down a threat when the theat is potentially everywhere. A shaky performance from Bowdoin's defense, and Lynchburg could spend the game picking apart the ruins en route to an historic win, just as they did against Trinity and Ohio Wesleyan.

If Lynchburg's defense does fail, however, to absorb deadly and fluid attacks as they have done so far, they could easily find themselves reeling, especially with freshman keeper Michael Releford in goal, who has been excellent but may lack the experience and composure if things get out of hand. Bowdoin, on the contrary, does bring a potent offense to the table. And this could prove Lynchburg's undoing. Freshman Zach Danssaert has been nothing short of a sensation this year, and although his account isn't affluent, his goals could not have come at more crucial moments. To begin with, the back-breaking goal against Williams saw the California native etch his name in the history books, but it was his overtime stunner against Middlebury in the Elite 8 that solidified his talisman status, propelling the team to semifinals for the first time. He will definitely be on the radar when entering the game, but junior forward Eddie Jones and attacking senior midfielder Ben Denton-Scheider could prove most problematic for the Virginians. Denton-Schneider and Jones have proven both prolific and crucial in-the-clutch, smashing home monumental game-winners for their side. A choke-moment for Lynchburg, and one of these three players could pounce and effectively call quits on Lynchburg's dream run. The Wall brothers were a deadly duo, but they don't compete against the nation's best week in and week out, therefore, Lynchburg will be very wary of Bowdoin's ability to strike at the perfect moment. Bowdoin's defense has also proven highly effective. Although they've given up goals in each of their games, they've done so against familiar competition, some of whom are the nation's best. Lynchburg's early season misfires in front of goal could very well come back to haunt them, and Bowdoin's firm defense will have no problem in neutralizing any other threat. The only problem: an early goal for Lynchburg could see Bowdoin playing into the same trap to which Trinity and Ohio Wesleyan fell victim.

On the other side of the bracket, No. 11 UW-Oshkosh slammed their critics to advance to the semifinals, and potentially steer themselves into the elusive championship their program has been chasing for the last 15 years. The problem: they face top-ranked and defending national champion Messiah. Were it anyone else, Oshkosh, with their impregnable defense and devastating precision attacks, may have been considered a favorite to play in the championship. Oshkosh now must defy history and upend a Messiah team that has only lost three times in the past 10 years. But Oshkosh has a recent history of their own, and if Messiah is to advance, they must defy Oshkosh's recent history, and beat a team that has yet to lose this campaign.

Messiah is undoubtedly the favorite entering this match, if not for the simple fact that they have so much experience at this phase. To parallel such a heavy advantage, their skill, free-flowing attack, and knack for stealing games at the death make for a team virtually impossible to beat. Sure they lost the first match of the season, but that was to a Hobart team who eventually won just two conference matches. One easily believed Hobart was a contender early on, but they submerged into the depths of nothingness as pretenders, and Messiah has shrugged the early defeat, chalked it off as a learning experience, and proceeded to lay waste to their subsequent competition. Not a good sign for Oshkosh. And an even worse sign: Messiah's free-flowing game endured some major obstacles throughout their brilliant campaign, but they proved more than capable of reversing probable doom, and found ways to grind out wins. Teams that run rampant throughout their entire season, usually lose the ability to grind out a win when all cylinders aren't firing, and a team retains the wherewithal to shut down attacks. Messiah has overcome this sort of problem, and will most-likely continue to do so. Expect to see senior Geoff Pezon and the Thompson brothers emerging as the heros late in the match, when all seems headed to extra time. These guys love to break hearts, and that may very well be on their docket for the Final Four.

Here's Messiah's problem: Oshkosh isn't the type of team to sit just sit back, absorb attacks, and then just spring a counter. Yes, they have excellent defense - they've allowed just five goals to date - and yes, they are devastating on the counter, but they've repeatedly shut down opponents deploying just three defenders, and love to gain possession and proceed to dismantle opponents with a quick passing game. This could prove highly problematic for Messiah, because 1) statistically, Oshkosh's defense is much better and less susceptible, 2) Oshkosh loves to move the ball very quickly on the ground and push the ball to the wings, and 3) Oshkosh is very strong and has proven very quite adept in the air in front of goal. Messiah could very well be heading into battle with a team as good as them in possession, but also a team that knows how to defend well across the pitch, and shut down opponents. . . permanently. Messiah could also find themselves circling the wagons if they are too generous in the foul and free-kick categories, for much of the Titan scoring has come from creative free-kicks and junior Tim Stadler's screamers. A foul in the wrong area could spell doom for the Falcons, and Oshkosh surpassing the stunning achievements of an historic undefeated season.

If they are to surpass those achievements, though, Oshkosh will have to utilize their quick and fluid play, counter-attacking abilities, set-piece prominence, and speed, for Messiah will be the most difficult of teams at this stage. Whether or not Messiah is the best tactically or player for player, Messiah owns the invaluable secret to tournament experience and a psychological factor that cause teams to stumble in their wake. It will most likely be Oshkosh's defensive solidity that could enable progression past the holders, and that alone could be a psychological barrier for Messiah, for how does one beat a team that simply does not allow goals? Plotting goals against Montclair State, Merchant Marine, and Medaille is a completely different scenario than doing so against Oshkosh, regardless of their strength of schedule. The converse worry for Oshkosh, of course, would be if Messiah can crack the lock on their defense early on, then the game would turn to favor the holders very quickly with their creativity and ball control, and Oshkosh would spend the game chasing, something they haven't to do very often.

Jim Matson, Christan Shirk, Ryan Harmanis, and other staff writers and contributors help cover the games and results across the nation.

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