Messiah takes the title in overtime
|Senior Geoff Pezon scored the overtime game winner
in Saturday's title match
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
By James Derrick
It's the national championship! And what better storyline? The undisputed greatest division III soccer dynasty and holders Messiah at battle with the shock cinderella team Lynchburg, who has toppled four of the nation's best landing themselves at this spot. Regardless of the background, however, both teams were pensive, apprehensive, but all smiles. Lynchburg has no reason to be scared or nervous. They've taken down Emory, Trinity, and Ohio Wesleyan, and after stunning Bowdoin in overtime in Friday's Final Four match, Messiah is just another opponent of whom they hope to stun as well. “We have a good shot,” said golden goal hero Stephen Brooks just before the match. “[Like yesterday] Ward has a great throw, and we can connect on that today.” As for Messiah, they've been here before, they're used to this, so to them, it's just another game in the championship. Or is it? Junior outside midfielder asserted, “We honestly don't know much about them, but we come in with the same mentality to every game.
The game that promised so much, provided so much. And in a game where Lynchburg shocked Messiah with their speed, possession, and creativity, they were to be left dejected; ruined by a referee, as Messiah scored controversially in the dying moments to send the match into extra time, where they eventually won it all. It wouldn't have been difficult to imagine a lop-sided Messiah victory prior the match, especially after Friday's choppy match against Bowdoin, but Lynchburg had a different opinion, and wasted no time asserting it. From the kick off, high pressure from forward Kyle Symczak, Jordan Clark, Shane Spanninger, and Shawn Bender found Messiah coughing up passes, getting stripped of the ball, and making head-on sprints to their defensive third in vain trying to run down Lynchburg's speedy offense. “We came out hard and got chances early; really thought we'd score early,” claimed a particularly dangerous Symczak. Spanninger confirmed, "We wanted to challenge their style and put high pressure.” It worked.
In the first minute, Clark found himself on the receiving end of a Stephen Brooks cross, but headed just over the bar. From that point on, Messiah was tepid, nervy, and unable to render any response for quite some time. Pezon, just like Friday, tried his best to bring a calmness to the madness, moving the ball quickly from side to side, but the sides weren't open. In response to Lynchburg's heavy pressure, Pezon stated, “They worked very hard in the middle. I was surprised. There wasn't much room for ball movement. But we needed to play our style, keep possession and work our way up the field.” Unfortunately, they couldn't. Mathew Rowe and Tyler Romano completely thwarted their typical potency, and Pezon's effect on the match soon fell to the wayside until he subbed out. Clark, who caused major problems for Messiah defender Logan Thompson, put himself in good position, but his chance too went begging. In the 20th minute, however, Lynchburg nearly cracked Messiah's defense, as Shawn Bender blazed by two defenders from the side, and cracked a far post shot that Jake Berry was able to save with his finger tips. Clark eventually beat Messiah's confused defense with a well-weighted cross, but Benders blast traveled well over the frame.
Not only was Lynchburg's offense clicking, but their defense was just as brutally effective. “Our defense was awesome,” claimed a proud senior captain Abbonizio. Not only were Rowe and Romano emphatically prominent in shutting down Messiah's widths, but Zach Ward and Hunter Smith were equally effective in stepping hard to any penetrating pass from Messiah's Geoff Pezon and Nick Thompson. Any ball collected by the pair was subsequently driven to the feet of either Spanninger or Symczak, where they could turn and cause more problems on Messiah, and Messiah continued to look rattled and flat throughout the first half. Any ball that did become airbound was won by Lynchburg's defense. Early on, Nick Thompson eventually was awarded a rare look on goal, but his shot was blocked, but their best chance came off of a counter attack, where Trevor Lee beat Smith and flashed in a cross, but with no one there, it was a futile attempt.
The second half was a bit different, with Lynchburg pinned inside their half for long spells, but Messiah still had difficulty opening up their defense, and create chances. When Lynchburg attacked, they did so with quick touches, speed and quality ball movement. Not that Messiah did not. They worked the ball across the field throughout the early stages of the half searching for the chance to break down Lynchburg's seemingly impregnable defense. Messiah began the half with tempo, and quickly pushed Lynchburg into a defensive position, with Logan Thompson switching a ball across the box that Nick Thompson headed wide. But Lynchburg did not take long in spreading the field and pushing the ball to Spanninger and Symczak, and it was they who created the first true scoring chance. When Lynchburg won a free-kick forty yards out, Rowe sent a long, high ball into the box. Under mass confusion, Spanninger used his deft touch to settle the ball, quickly turn, and unleash a vicious effort straight at Berry. The ball immediately bounced off and fell to Clark, who smashed his shot off Burke for a corner. Lynchburg immediately began to regain control, as Messiah's possession play was successfully broken up by the high pressure.
With 30 minutes left in the half, Messiah's substitutes brought fresh legs speed, and off-ball runs started to cause problems for Lynchburg for the first time all match, but not without several chances for Lynchburg as well. A Logan Thompson pass found Danny Thompson in the box, who could only fire wide. A minute later, another lofted Lynchburg free-kick nearly caused a goal as Messiah defender Sean Cunningham coughed-up the ball with a raw touch. Lynchburg were then awarded a throw-in in dangerous territory, and replicating Friday's golden goal, Sean Ward sent a bomb into the box with which, after several deflections, Lynchburg midfielder Sean Rusk connected, shooting just inches wide of Messiah's post. Messiah quickly turned around the attack, as a Keaton Kasiguran cross into danger was collected by Lynchburg keeper Michael Releford. Ramirez then fired in a cross from the opposite side after a quick break down the wing, but was headed just wide by Nick Thompson. Messiah then proceeded to possess, pinning back and preventing Lynchburg from utilizing the deadly combinations up top. In the 62nd minute, Jordan Sands drove to the end line, passed a bullet back into the box, but again, no one was there. Kasiguran found himself in prime position to snatch a lead in the 68th minute, but fired high and wide.
Lynchburg began to open the game up more and more, and finally, with just 15 minutes remaining, put together the deadly combination that shook the division III soccer world. After receiving a pass from Ward, Sean Coleman bisected the Messiah midfield to slot a ball to Abbonizio 20 yards outside of the box. Abbonizion settled the ball, turned Sands, and smashed a fast, dipping shot right into the top corner of the goal to stun the defending champions. He described it by saying, “I received the ball, looked up, and fired it.” He continued, “Of course you're going to be ecstatic about that.” A goal up, in total control, and minutes away from victory, Lynchburg had all but sealed their fate as champions.
That is until a very controversial decision on the pitch. Down a goal with just 15 minutes left, Messiah began to fall apart. Using three backs and an extra attacker (Squire) they heaped on the pressure as Lynchburg settled into a defensive role, but were unable to materialize any serious threat as the nerves wore on passes and touches. Creating another counter attack with just five minutes remaining, Lynchburg played a long ball into Messiah's box with Spanninger running onto with speed. Messiah keeper Berry rushed out to clear, and sent a soaring ball to the end of the field. As Ward jumped to head the ball clear at the top of the box and elevated himself, he was taken down with a thrust from Messiah forward Dan Squire. Releford stalled, and Squire hit home the equalizer. To the surprise of everyone, no whistle or flag from the officials. Stunned and demoralized, Lynchburg found themselves reeling, and heading into overtime. “You can't blame the refs, but it's tough though,” said Spanninger after the match. Renko accredited the shot as “an adrenaline rush.” Coach Brad McCarty declined to give a direct comment regarding the manner in which Squire scored, but did say, “the physical contact could have been a foul; another ref could have called a foul.”
On into overtime, and Lynchburg didn't relent. “We kept our heads high,” said Abbonizio. Symczak also confirmed saying, “We didn't let that stop us.” This couldn't have been more true. But it was Messiah who pushed first, but to no avail. And then it was Lynchburg's turn, but also to no avail. With Spanninger, Brooks, and Bender creating opportunities on the edge of Messiah's box, they were unable to deal the fatal blow. Messiah then responded with a string of passes along Lynchburg's box, but it ended with a screamer from Nick Thompson that sailed just wide. Lynchburg countered within the minute, and a cross into the box nearly saw Robert Hart emerge as the hero heading straight into the near post corner, but an acrobatic save Berry ensured that Messiah wouldn't be going down in extra time. “It's all about footwork,” claimed Berry when discussing his save. “Normally, in the past, I would have [dived], but I used my feet to get into position to make that save.”
Messiah quickly found their pace just after, and Pezon received a pass right on the half line. He turned and drove toward goal with speed. Heading right into Smith and Ward as Danny Thompson provided an overlapping run around him to the center. The run caused confusion between both Smith and Ward, as Black drew Smith, and in the heat of the confusion, Pezon used a burst of speed to pass Ward, and slot a perfect ball underneath the charging Releford, and Messiah retained the crown. “Run fast.” That's exactly what Pezon told himself when he saw the space in front of him. “Danny made the space, and I took advantage of it.” As for Lynchburg, the shot was devastating. “It's tough,” said Coach Yeager of Lynchburg, “but I'm proud.”
On his team's stunning comeback victory, Brad McCarty was equally proud saying, “It put me to my knees.” As the second team under his leadership, he claimed they will “have a special place in my heart.” Berry was relieved saying, “It's stressful [going into overtime], but it's fun winning in overtime.” Pezon summed up the win in congruence with the entirety of his career saying, “It was awesome to end this way, to fight for four years, work for each other and for God.”