November 7, 2010

The AQs are in! Weekend in review

Sunday marked the conclusion for the conference tournaments, handing the nation their first set of national tournament participants, while the rest wait in agony for the word from the NCAA.

Despite only eight final matches in play, four were salivating with top 25 opponents facing-off against one another. The NESCAC and the Centennial conferences have been two of the most dangerous conferences this year, with each boasting no less than three nationally-ranked teams at any given time, and both produced a winner on Sunday, and neither of the winners were the top seed.

On Saturday, No. 7 Swarthmore avoided embarrassment with a nail-biting win in penalties against Johns Hopkins, but it was sheer grit that enabled them to prevail over a tough No.22 Muhlenberg side in Sunday's championship. Muhlenberg grabbed the lead in the 28th minute with a Swat defender redirecting a straight shot over his own keeper. Swarthmore responded, dominating in the second half with possession and a flury of shots, and they were eventually rewarded when Muhlenberg felled a player in box, and Micah Rose converted. Maintaining their dominant form, Swarthmore midfielder Kieran Reichart hammered home the winner in overtime to send Swarthmore to the tournament, and hand them their second conference title in three years.

Middlebury booked themselves a ticket to the tournament with a win in penalties against No.19, and top-seeded Bowdoin in the NESCAC championship. But not too worry for Bowdoin, chances are, they'll find themselves competing just as well after a great season. There is a good chance the NESCAC could be represented by four teams, but the committee may not want an imbalance in the tournament. In the Empire 8, No. 8 Stevens completed a dominant conference campaign with a narrow 1-0 victory over a hopeful Nazareth. Were it not for the heroics of keeper Kyle Connolly, Stevens would have smashed 10 past Nazareth. Nazareth has been known for devastating national tournament runs, but chances are they'll be watching someone else do that this year.

Former national champion Babson reclaimed for themselves the NEWMAC title after upsetting Springfield on Saturday, and knocking-off Wheaton in the championship. Wheaton grabbed an early second half lead, but 10 minutes later, they scored again, this time on their own goal. With the bit of fortune, Babson capitalized even further, with Eric Long chipping over the keeper. In the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, there was little surprise as once dominant Loras won out over Wartburg. Loras seemed to have fallen to the wayside after some wayward performances this term, but a stunning 2-0 win over an undefeated Dominican demonstrated just how deadly they can still be, and with their win over Wartburg, they'll be looking for similar astounding results.

In the UAA, No.16 Carnegie Mellon's 2-0 derailing of No. 7 Emory probably didn't come soon enough. Although New York University locked up the conference Saturday night, the two teams are both vying for an at-large bid. Carnegie Mellon pretty much killed themselves with a dismal conference campaign, and Emory, who was so good up to this point, could not have ended on a worse note. Both teams will undoubtedly be biting their nails tonight until the Pool C berths are posted.

In women's action, the UAA and the SCAC were able to finally claim champions today, as Chicago and Trinity recorded wins. The SCAC's final match couldn't have been more accurately planned, as the top two teams vied for the regular season championship, and the automatic bid as well. Trinity led the conference by 3 points, but a loss to Centre on Sunday would nullify any significance of that lead, as Centre would take the conference by storm as a result of the head-to-head rules. 6th ranked Trinity, however, would have none of that, as they defeated a resilient and talented Centre side 1-0 to move six points in the clear, and claim their spot in the tournament. The University of Chicago dealt Washington a 1-0 defeat, but their clinching of the conference actually came last week, with a 2-0 over Brandeis. 9th ranked Emory kept it close but fell an eventual four points shy to give No.21 Chicago a clear margin to win it all. Emory must also wait for a Pool C berth. Hard to imagine they won't receive one, though.

No. 5 Loras and Stevens women replicated their men's teams with wins over Wartburg and Nazareth, respectively. No.23 Williams claimed a major victory over Amherst, winning 1-0 to grab the NESCAC title.

In the Little East Conference, UMass-Boston and Western Connecticut filled the void left by No.19 Eastern Connecticut, with Western Connecticut shutting down Boston in a 1-0 match. Most-likely, both Western and Eastern Connecticut will be representing the Little East.

In an epic Centennial battle (seems like this conference is destined for greatness in both men's and women's), No.12 Johns Hopkins put No.22 Dickinson to the sword in a 3-0 match. Controlling most of the possession and tempo, Johns Hopkins slammed two early goals home, five minutes apart from each other, to cruise into the national tournament. Dickinson will be a good candidate for a Pool C berth, but a lop-sided defeat like that- at least on the scoreboard- may raise eyebrows in the selection process

In men's action on Saturday, Hope, Pacific, Trinity, and New York University all progressed to the NCAA Tournament, leaving highly talented, top-performing teams such as Calvin, Whitman, DePauw, Washington U. and Emory in their wake, and praying for the at-large bid. Of these four, Hope's qualification was the most surprising, not because their talent and exploits this term didn't warrant their spot, but because their exploits required more dominant and more consistent performances than their arch-rival Calvin, currently ranked 12th in the nation. Hope did so with two monumental wins against Calvin, once when they were ranked top in the nation, the second at Calvin's pitch. It's tough to say Calvin was the best team in this conference, and for this reason, it is Hope who deserves the credit for gaining a spot in the national tournament. Hope's glory was sealed in their 2-0 win over Olivet.

As for the Northwest Conference, Pacific was able to ride out a testy finish to stay top. They maintained a lead on the conference throughout the season, but were very closely trailed by Pacific Lutheran and Whitman. Midseason losses to Pacific Lutheran and Whitman ensured that Pacific would not be running long with the conference title but finished strong with the two hot on their heels, finalizing their rightfully earned spot in the tournament with a 4-0 hammering of George Fox.

Trinity needed their Friday win against a talented and miserly DePauw to officially seal their spot, but the reality of the situation was evident from early on: Trinity was the best. Not that DePauw couldn't challenge and possibly take it in the end, but draws on the road to Birmingham-Southern and Centre doused any hope of challenging Trinity. Southwestern move top with Trinity, but a head-to-head loss, and an inferior goal differential ensures the title belongs to the undoubtedly best team, Trinity. In the determining match, DePauw did come from a goal behind to draw level, but Trinity buried the game in the 58th minute, sending DePauw to the proverbial pre-selection purgatory. Even with a Sunday loss to runners-up Southwestern, it is incredibly hard to think of DePauw on the sidelines for the national tournament after an outstanding season, one in which they yielded just 6 goals.

And finally, the UAA. Arguably the toughest conference in the nation -- not just due to the strength of the teams, but the travel burdens as well -- the UAA found an intriguing winner in New York University. For all the hype propagated upon the nationally ranked teams of Emory, Carnegie Mellon, Rochester, and Washington, NYU landed a vital win against a highly ranked Emory. A win against Case Western and Chicago saw them move top, and a tie against a chasing Wash U ensured that just a win against bottom team Brandeis would land them the title, and the automatic bid, as Carnegie Mellon and Rochester continued to slip deeper and deeper into the mire. So much for non-conference strength of schedule. It remains true that Emory sits 6th in the nation, Washington is 10th, Carnegie Mellon 16th, and Rochester 21st, but sending five teams from one conference is a difficult task for any conference. Good thing most of these teams sit in differing regions, or the chances of their premature end to the season would be greater than they are now.

Outside of the some of the top teams from the top conferences, the little guys made some noise this postseason as three No. 4 seeds won their conference tournaments and landed their spot in the NCAA Tournament. In the GNAC, Suffolk secured a major win over 2nd-seeded Albertus Magnus to claim their first spot in the national tournament. Suffolk had already completed an upset over the top-seeded Lassell, and completed it Saturday. Catholic upended the number three seed, United States Merchant Marine in their Landmark Conference championship. After going up a goal in the 23rd minute, Merchant Marine accessed some fortune to see a deflection spin home after off of a corner. Remaining tied through extra time, the game was decided in a penalty shootout, where Catholic was able to repeat its championship and grab a spot in the tournament. Thomas More completed their run against Bethany, defeating the 2nd-seeded team in the PAC with two goals in a span of 6 minutes, and then held on for a 2-1 win.

In one of the most enticing playoff matches on Saturday No. 7 Swarthmore put No.20 Johns Hopkins to the sword in penalties. Johns Hopkins entered the Centennial Conference playoffs via a play-in game against Gettysburg, where they stormed to a 4-1 victory. Using the momentum, Hopkins took an early lead in the first half through Bukoski, however, in the 73rd minute, Philip Celestin took measures into his own hands scoring a brilliant solo goal to snatch victory from Hopkins. Swarthmore and Hopkins reverted to defense to finish out the match, and Swarthmore prevailed in the shoot-out. On the other side of the conference, No.22 Muhlenberg held little back in their destruction of Franklin and Marshall, as they ran out 4-0 winners in the end. Danny Way bagged an early brace, and it was cruise control for Muhlenberg from there on out.

York and Salisbury's salivating match left spectators with no let downs, as the thriller of a championship fell to York in another of many penalty shoot-outs. In a game that provided nearly 40 shots, York maintained a slight advantage, but it was Salisbury's Chipungu who banged home the opener when connecting with a beautiful through ball. Fighting their way back to level scores, York was rewarded in the 59th minute when Antonio Bua provided the leveler. With the scoring done, York was able to complete the comeback in penalties.

The No. 2 team in the nation, Christopher Newport was unable to rectify its midseason blues with a major win over conference rival North Carolina Wesleyan in their volatile thriller of a championship. Looking for a repeat, NCWC came flying out of the gates to grab a stunning third minute lead, but an even quicker response saw Winston Matheisen head home for the equalizer. In a dead-even match, the two sides entered the break level, but in a replicate of his first Winston Matheisen did it again in the 69th minute. With the Battling Bishops pushing desperately for the equalizer, the Captains' Andrew Bonorden was able to capitalize, find space, and beat his marker to fire home the deal-breaker in the dying minutes for a hard-fought 3-1 win.

In Ohio, No. 4 Ohio Wesleyan wrapped-up a dominant conference campaign, defeating Denison in the North Coast Athletic Conference. Denison provided a shock victory over Kenyon earlier this week, and nearly pulled-off a second after going up 1-nil moments after kick-off. Rallying themselves, however, OWU proceeded to flex their muscles, and pound Denison for the remainder of the match, putting an eventual 3 past Denison for a convincing win.

In Pennsylvania, the heated rivalry between the holders Messiah and Elizabethtown provided another thriller, with Messiah again topping the once national champion. While the scoring was low, Messiah rattled-off 21 shots en route to their 6th conference championship with Geoff Pezon nodded home the winner in the 52nd minute.

In the heated NESCAC battles, Wesleyan's hope of repeating 2005 was snuffed just as quickly as it began, but not without a fight. Facing the number one seeded, and 19th ranked Bowdoin, Wesleyan found themselves the surprise package again, going up 1-0 in the 14th minute. Holding off any Bowdoin attack, Wesleyan looked to enter the break a goal-to-the-good, but a last-gasp leveler through Michael Gale drew Bowdoin even just before the break to give Wesleyan an impossible fight to re-take the lead. Keeping Wesleyan to just two shots in the second half, Bowdoin sealed the deal in the 66th to set-up a final with Middlebury, who derailed Amherst in a 2-nil victory. Middlebury jumped ahead with a deflected shot that found its way spinning past Amherst keeper Lenard Kovacs. Heaping their pressure on Amherst, Middlebury didn't need fortune for their second as Otis Pitney nodded home a perfect cross to sink Amherst.

No. 5 Dominican cruised to victory in the Northern Athletic Conference, with a 2-0 win over Aurora. Two first half goals from Ryan Roberts and a curling ball from Andy Lynch provided Dominican with the commanding lead, and they now look to repeat last year's successful final four run in the national tournament.

In the SUNYAC, No.24 Brockport condenmed themselves to a possible disaster of an ending, as they fell short of victory against Plattsburgh in penalties. Brockport, who provided a highly successful season, dropped vital matches in the dying portions of their conference season to finish third, and endure an extra play-off match. They won that against Cortland, and then knocked-out Fredonia, to whom they suffered in the regular season, but their championship marked the end of their run, as they were unable to break-down Plattsburgh's defense, and were unable to convert their spot-kicks to win it. They will now hope for grace from the selection committee.

In one of the most exciting matches of the year, North Park upended Wheaton in the CCIW championship. Losing 3-1 in the regular season match, North Park responded this time with a blazing opening, as Kris Grahn's screamer from deep range put them a goal-to-the-good just 3 minutes in. However, Wheaton forged their way back into the match, and in the 57th minute Wheaton talisman Drew Golz once again added to his account with the leveler. Within the next ten minutes, North Park amplified their attack, pounding a series of shots at keeper Ryan Seager, until Filip Lindmark's header snagged a vital lead for North Park, a lead they would hold ... until the last 25 seconds of the second half, where Golz' heroics were once again, as he bagged the equalizer, snatching victory right out from under North Park, sending the match to extra time. Just one minute in, however, and North Park hero Kris Grahn would that the final goal would be last of Golz and co, as he hammered home the winner after an uncleared corner kick to give North Park an well-deserved and remarkable win.

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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