Falcons Erupt Early, Earn Ninth National Championship
San Antonio, TX – Messiah College scored four goals in the first 20 minutes of the National Championship on Saturday, defeating Ohio Northern University 5-1 to win the ninth NCAA Division III title in program history.
Sophomore Brian Ramirez opened the scoring in just the sixth minute, sending home a free kick from 20 yards out near the midfield. His shot to the top-left corner of the goal was untouched by keeper Mac Church and put Messiah immediately in front 1-0.
Just four minutes later, sophomore Mike Kovach put Messiah ahead 2-0 with a strong strike from the right side of the box. Played square from Joshua Wood in the middle, Kovach touched forward before sending his shot to the left side of the net. The score was the fifth for Kovach in the past four games—a streak that included the game-winner in Friday's 1-0, overtime win over Loras.
"I'm not doing any spectacular," Kovach said, deferring praise to his teammates. "I've just been in the right position to get scoring chances."
The Falcons' quick start was somewhat of a shock to both teams, especially the Polar Bears.
"They were all over us at the beginning, " Ohio Northern coach Brent Ridenour said. "We talked with our guys about the importance of getting it out of our end, but (Messiah) didn't let us breathe."
As if the quick 2-0 lead wasn't enough to process—and with Messiah fans still cheering the Falcons' advantage—Carter Robbins headed in a corner serve from Jack Thompson to give Messiah a 3-0 lead in the 16th minute. His shot from the six-yard line went across the goal to the right side, setting off another on-field celebration from the Falcons.
Strongly ahead 3-0, Messiah still wasn't done.
Less than three minutes after Robbins' score, Jeremy Payne corralled a loose ball near the top of the 18-yard line, weaving to the left side and cutting in to the goal. Finding himself one-on-one with Church, Payne sent a quick strike to the right side of the net to complete a four-goal eruption for Messiah.
"We had no rhythm at the beginning," Ridenour added. "When we went down 2-0, we started to scramble, and then they made us pay for that."
"Coming into the game, we didn't know exactly what to expect," Messiah head coach Brad McCarty said. "Our game with Loras was exhausting, so we didn't know what our guys would have left. We certainly didn't expect four goals in twenty minutes. That's amazing."
After Payne's goal, the scoreboard showed Messiah ahead 4-0 on just four shots.
With their offensive setting a strong tone, the Falcons' defensive unit continued to frustrate the Polar Bears' high-scoring attack. Senior Nate Bascom and freshman Keegan Ross—both with 53-point season totals entering Saturday's game—were held in check, though Bascom almost cut his team's deficit to 4-1 just minutes after Payne's score. Receiving a lot through the midfield, Bascom found himself alone with Messiah keeper Brandon West with his shot from the penalty maker going left of the goal.
"They have some guys that are real handfuls up top," McCarty said of the Polar Bears, naming Bascom and Ross specifically. "They worked really hard today and they proved to be a lot to handle."
Outside of Bascom's missed opportunity, Ohio Northern's best chances at a first-half goal came off a pair of long free kicks sent into the Messiah box. Both serves were grabbed in the air by West.
In the second half, Messiah again started quickly as Payne added his second goal of the game in the 50th minute. Fed up and through the middle by Joshua Wood, Payne found himself on a clear break into the right side of the box. With Church coming off his line to cut down Payne's angle, the Commonwealth Player of the Year sent a sharp strike to the far side. Church managed to slightly deflect the attempt, but not enough to keep it from landing safely in the goal.
Ahead 5-0 at this point, Messiah was threatening to claim the largest margin of victory ever in a Division III final—five goals, accomplished twice by UNC Greensboro (1985, 1987).
"When we went down early, we tried to pick our guys up because they were down on themselves," Ridenour said. "At halftime, we reminded them that we could also score in bunches. We talked about getting the first goal in the second half. But then they grabbed another."
But Ohio Northern continued to battle, and finally pushed across a score in the 54th minute off the head of Cameron Johnson. Flicked into the box by Austin Windsor off a serve from Bascom, Johnson's header from the middle of the box went past a diving West to make it a 5-1 game.
"We've faced deficits before, but not two, three, four goals," Ridenour said. "But we continued to fight, and I'm proud of our guys for that."
The Polar Bears did battle to the end, launching 10 shots in the second half. A prime opportunity for a second goal came in the 64th minute when a foul by Luke Helmuth set Ohio Northern up for a free kick from 20 yards out near the midfield. With Messiah arranging their wall, the Polar Bears attempted a quick restart and appeared to have a perfect chance for a second goal. But their restart—which actually ended with a shot wide of the Falcons' goal—was called back after they played from the wrong spot on the field.
Moments later, a blocked shot near the top of Messiah's box fell by the left side of the Falcons' goal, with a chip by Ross grabbed by West in front of the net.
With the Polar Bears continuing to work for goals, Messiah also continued to counter for chances of their own. Messiah took 13 shots in the second half, none more exciting than a breakaway attempt by senior Frederick Behnke in the 86th minute. A walk-on and fan favorite, Behnke's shot from the right side of the box hit off the left post before landing over the end line.
But regardless of all the extra scoring chances, the result of the game was inevitable, as Messiah's high-powered offensive and defensive units proved too much for the Polar Bears in the National Final.
The four goal decision ties for the second-largest margin of victory for a National Champion—tying the Falcons' of 2004, 4-0 win over UC Santa Cruz. The win is also Messiah's ninth title in nine Finals appearances, as McCarty earns his third crown in four years as head coach with the Falcons.
The title is Messiah's first since winning three in a row in 2008, 2009, and 2010. All of the Falcons' titles have come since 2000.
"One thing that we really well is maintain our focus," McCarty said. "It's really hard to go out every game and play your best. For our guys to do that every game says a lot about our guys, our program, and our mentality."
For his offensive exploits in the NCAA Tournament, Mike Kovach was named the Tournament's Most Valuable Offensive Player. Senior Logan Thompson took home Most Valuable Defensive honors, with Jack Thompson, Jeremy Payne, and Brandon West also named to the All-Tournament team.
Outside of Logan Thompson, all of the All-Tournament team members for Messiah—and all of their goal scorers on Saturday—are sophomores.
"We knew last year that we had a talented class, but we didn't win a single NCAA game last year," Kovach said, remembering the Falcons' early exit from the 2011 Tournament. "We know that we have to perform, but we're also just a part of the group. We want to have a great attitude and someday transition into leaders."
"For us, the opportunity to play as long as possible is what's important to us," Logan Thompson said, reflecting on his senior year ending with a title. "Our goal each weekend of the Tournament was to make it one more week. When we arrived in San Antonio, we wanted to fight for each other because of what every member of this team has sacrificed this year."
With the loss, Ohio Northern completes their season with a 25-2 record. Their appearance in the National Final was their first in program history.
Messiah's final record of 23-0-2 accounts for the second time in program history they finish a season without a single loss (2005).
"I'm really proud of our guys," McCarty said of his team. "We risk our heart every time out there, and my heart and spirit are full right now. Our guys buy into our program and into each other."
2012 All-Tournament Team
Williams: User Kushaina, Patrick Ebobisse
Loras: Dan Figura, Kevin Cavers
Ohio Northern: Shintaroh Itoh, Austin Windsor, Nate Bascom
Messiah: Brandon West, Jack Thompson, Jeremy Payne, Logan Thompson, Mike Kovach
Defensive MVP: Logan Thompson
Offensive MVP: Mike Kovach