December 3, 2010

The stalwart against the upstart

Unranked Lynchburg's run continues, with the Division III heavyweight ahead Saturday.
Photo by Ryan Coleman,

In the men's Final Four, Messiah proved all too strong for the talented UW-Oshkosh, while in the other men's match, Lynchburg left Bowdoin stunned after their thrilling comeback win.

Calm, cool, collected. Despite undergoing high pressure in the back, UW-Oshkosh took quick control of what could possibly be deemed the nation's most exciting match. This is start to the game greatly contradicts that of a nervy, shaky Messiah team, who nearly shipped goals early on. But they didn't, if only because Devon Prideaux and Tony Starnes brillilant play fell just shy of converting the deadly blows to a Messiah looking to rebook their place in the championship here in San Antonio. Starnes found Prideaux with just the goalie to beat, but unable to settle a hopping pass, Prideaux's eventual shot was deflected by Logan Sullivan. Unfortunately, this didn't persist, and Messiah ran-out 4-1 winners in a match not well-told by its scoreline.

Oshkosh produced the better of chances early on as Messiah's timid introduction to the game nearly found them reeling. But then the game took a completely different turn, and the nerves wore off to produce a match of poise, speed, strength, and passion. Probably the most significant factor in providing that change was Tom Renko. "Tom was critical. He's not just good at spreading the field, but defensively as well," said Messiah coach Brad McCarty.

The Messiah stalwart and defensive midfielder soon took control, filling the void left by Pezon's early anonymity. With each touch, Renko redirected play, threaded a perfect ball, turned a defender, created space, and ultimately wreaked havoc on the nation's toughest and most efficient defense. The most damaging aspect of his play: finding Messiah's lightning fast wings, and causing panic in Oshkosh's defense. "We talked a lot about our wings,” McCarty said, “and the chances they have to open up the game."

That is exactly what they did. As a result, Messiah drew first blood. But it wasn't width play, after a Messiah passing sequence, a penetrating pass into the box, and clearance to the side, Geoff Pezon firmly stamped his name on the match with a screamer from 20 out. Unable to handle his shot, James Pike spilled the ball right into Danny Thompson's path for him to tap home the opener. Danny wasn't done. After playing the ball wide, speedy Derek Black used a burst of speed to try and beat Jack Borski to the endline. He quickly pulled it back and fired in a cross. Danny Thompson was again the recipient, and headed toward goal, where Trevor Lee slipped through Oshkosh's defense to head past Pike again, and send the holders to a 2-nil lead.

Junior Danny Thompson had a goal and two assists in the Messiah win.
Photo by Messiah athletics

Messiah had been fortuitous in between its successive goals, for Starnes beat both defender and keeper to seemingly slot home, only for Sean Cunningham to clear just inches from the line. Several other chances went begging for Oshkosh, and although their pace and pressure picked up, it seemed as though they would be entering the break empty-handed, and virtually defeated.

Oshkosh, however, responded immediately to the second goal. "We had to take it to them, we've been here before," claimed Giljohann. A through ball meant to find Starnes popped out to senior leader Tim Stadler. Stadler proceeded to fire in a screamer, and Messiah 'keeper Jake Berry could all but parry the shot into the path of the clinical finisher and freshman Ryan Hanna for the vital lifeline goal. Using the momentum Oshkosh again reasserted themselves with stellar, crunching defense, and quick play through Stadler, Giljohann, and Chaney; Messiah attacked, but it was limited, and the tide had again turned in the favor of the Wisconsin boys.

On into the second half, and the flurries of chances that characterized the first half were vacant, but the skill, intricate passing, and crushing tackles were more than evident. With Chaney deployed more into a strictly defensive role, Messiah found it difficult to utilize the wings, especially with Kohel and Borski able to focus on quelling Black, Lee and Ramirez. Lee and Pezon both were able to release powerful shots, but their efforts were well off target. Hanna was nearly the cause again in the 56th with a pass that bisected Messiah's defense, but Brandon Briones couldn't quite get a shot off. Unfortunately for both sides, the heat not natural for these northern teams at this point in the season began to take its toll, causing cramping and fatigue. Oshkosh was the true victim however, with Chaney having to leave the match with a muscle injury. This proved highly detrimental with Coach Molenaar speaking of its effect, "Chaney was difference maker, and without him, it's always going to be tough." Playing most of the second half in middle third, it seemed a matter of time before Oshkosh made their push for the equalizer. With inexperienced players in the back, however, Oshkosh struggled to distribute from deep range as was typical in the first half. Laubenstein nearly found himself in scoring position, but his final touch was chopped down by Woodworth.

With three minutes remaining, Oshkosh began to push hard, possessing and trying to achieve the crucial penetrating pass from Stadler and Giljohann. Messiah countered and was awarded a corner, and when Oshkosh failed to clear a back-post cross, Ramirez pounded in a shot at 'keeper James Pike. What seemed a routine saved quickly turned to disaster, however, as a seemingly offsides Nick Thompson squeezed his way through the defense and in front of Pike and Ramirez's shot to redirect the the third and back-breaking goal home and take a vital 3-1 lead with just three minutes left.

Stunned and devastated, Oshkosh's situation only worsened. Not quite finished, the Titans pushed harder to pull one back, as described after the match by Kohel, "You always have to believe." But in the process exposed freshman defender Mathias Thoma and Paul Marx, as Geoff Pezon and Danny Thompson worked a beautiful passing sequence, ending with a perfectly weighted through ball for Pezon to finish past Pike for the demoralizer. It was no more than Messiah deserved after a great game, but it was by no means what Oshkosh deserved after a fantastic game on their part.

UW-Oshkosh coach Wyste Molenaar was not surprised that Messiah was able to win, saying, "Messiah is everything they're hyped up to be." On the other hand, he expected a much different result noting that even the best teams can be broken down. While Oshkosh displayed the ability to dethrone Messiah, they fell just shy of such a momumental achievement. At the same time, Coach McCarty stressed the same sentiments for his opponents, saying, "There's a reason Oshkosh has the record they do. They possess the ball and create great scoring chances." While the match may be a footnote in the expansive history of Messiah's program, this is a massive accomplishment in this campaign. Goal-scorer Danny Thompson even sung their praises, "[The games] just get more difficult. To repeat is difficult, and this is a great team."

The win for the holders sets-up an interesting match with the shock team of the tournament: Lynchburg. Staying true to their character, they were the shock team again Friday afternoon. Bowdoin nearly sealed Lynchburg's fate early on with a break-away, a shot that rattled off the woodwork, a one-time shot that steered just wide, and other chances early on. But Bowdoin, just like Ohio Wesleyan, Trinity, and Emory allowed Lynchburg too much time to get comfortable.

While Bowdoin opened with chances, no complete control of the match was ever established, and both teams suffered for long spells in attempting to find their rhythm. It became evident right off the mark that Bowdoin looked to break-down Lynchburg's shaky defense utilizing the long-ball into their opponent's box. At first, handling this style of play was routine for Lynchburg. "We've always been good at dealing with that kind of attack," asserted Zach Ward. But as time and long ball wore on the Lynchburg defense, their ability to cope grew more and more susceptible.

When the long-ball didn't work for Bowdoin, they made great use of Ben Denton-Schneider, Eddie Jones, and Zach Danssaert to pressure hard, take players on, and create several scoring chances. For the most part, however, the ball saw little ground time in the first half. In the opening seconds of the match, Nick Powell nearly buried a rebound from a Zach Danssaert shot, only to smash the crossbar. Danssaert created a one on one from a tight angle, but couldn't convert, and Denton-Schneider couldn't complete a brilliant 1-2 pass with Danssaert as he blasted wide. The rest was poor play, broken up by a lot fouls.

Thanks to Bowdoin's strong defense, Lynchburg was forced to take a different approach, one that took some time to establish, but when established, proved to have a devastating effect.

From the get-go, Lynchburg was unable to send Ward, Michael Abbonizio or any other attackers into the box for an aerial attack, because Bowdoin's defense was too compact, too deep, and too organized. Rather than dumping long balls into treacherous terrain, they found speedy and technical players Stephen Brooks and Shane Spanninger at their feet. Moving the ball on the ground, and using Spanninger to carry the ball with his deft touch deep into Bowdoin territory, Lynchburg was able to cause moments of panic for their opponents.

"They had so many players back that we couldn't play [the ball deep], so we looked for wide players who were vital in that situation," Abbonizio said.

While Lynchburg made deep runs into Bowdoin territory, they failed on each attempt to complete a deadly pass in the final third of the field, rendering each attack futile, and inviting Bowdoin to counter with Danssaert and Jones high on their defense and ready to pounce.

With the lack in flow of play, it didn't help when both sides resorted to fouling techniques around the 23rd minute mark. To stem Lynchburg's flow, and to prevent Bowdoin from unleashing their key strikers, both teams looked to break up play with fouls. The match took a turn for the worst heading into the break, but Bowdoin reentered the match determined, and it paid off. In the 52nd minute, Lynchburg gave up a free-kick from forty yards out, allowing Michael Gale to chip a ball into the box. Using his strength and touch, Ben Brewster shrugged a defender, settled the ball, and slotted home to grab a 1-nil lead. With the lead, Bowdoin settled more and more for the long ball in search of Jones and Danssaert, while the fouls continued to break-up any hope of fluidity more and more. Reeling, Bowdoin Coach Fran O'Leary described their mentality in that being "comfortably ahead, the tendency is to sit back a bit."

Lynchburg continued to try in vain to move the ball on the ground and find a penetrating pass into Bowdoin's box, but their ability to connect in the final third became more and more suspect as time wore on. Then, in the 28th minute, Lynchburg gave Bowdoin an inciteful taste of what would eventually be their undoing. Ward took a throw-in, powering it into the box, and connecting with the throw, Donald Hart sent his shot just wide. It was the only real chance yet in the second half at that point, but it wasn't their last. Lynchburg began to send long-balls into Bowdoin's box, but 'keeper Dan Hicks did well to collect on each, forcing them to look to their wings, particularly Spanninger. Spanninger created a brilliant chance, beating his defender to the end line, but could only direct his cross out for a goal kick, and it seemed as though all was lost.

However, pushing hard for the leveler, Lynchburg pinned Bowdoin into their own defensive third, forcing them to clear any chance they could. A poor clearance, however, resulted in a quick cross from Lynchburg that Bowdoin was unable to control. Lynchburg's Sean Coleman rushed in to fire off his shot, and after taking a cruel deflection off of Bowdoin defender Sean Bishop, the ball found the back of the net for a thrilling last-gap equalizer.

In overtime, the story wasn't much different. This time, though, it was Ward's bomb of a throw-in. After nine and a half minutes of fouls and a lack of possession for either side during the first half of extra time, Lynchburg earned a throw-in deep into Bowdoin's territor.with just 20 seconds on the clock. Ward wasted no time in sending the ball into the box, catching Bowdoin off-guard, and midfielder Stephen Brooks wasted no time in connecting with Ward's throw to nod home the stunning game-winner, and complete a shocking comeback. As described by golden goal hero Brooks, "Ward put in a perfect throw, and I knew it was going to the back-post. It was a great throw." Ward complimented the feelings by saying of the win, "I'm loving every minute of it," A humble coach Chris Yeager was all smiles, but is ready for the task that lies ahead.

Although they play Messiah, captain Mike Abbonizio doesn't care. "Don't look at numbers, goals, stats ... It's just what happens between the touchlines that day."

Needless to say, Messiah neither scares nor intimidates a Lynchburg team who has made a habit out of toppling teams with more hype. But just how far can this team's dream run go?

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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