Nov. 22, 2010
Allentown, PA –
Courtesy of Messiah Athletics
Saturday afternoon at Muhlenberg College’s Varsity Field, history turned out to be the greatest prognosticator of all.
Facing a United States Merchant Marine Academy side making its first-ever appearance in an `Elite 8′ contest, it was the tournament-tested Falcons that cruised to a 3-0 win, earning Messiah’s 12th trip to a `Final Four’ and seventh consecutive.
An early own-goal did little to help the Mariners, and Messiah (21-1) tacked on an insurance marker midway through the first half. When freshman Drew Frey put in a rebound midway through the second period, Sunday’s final was all but arithmetic.
“After playing one of the best games of the season against Muhlenberg (Saturday), we knew we would need the same type of match to contend with Messiah,” said Merchant Marine head coach Michael Smolens. “They certainly were the most talented and deepest squad we have faced all year. In the end, we couldn’t match their level for 90 minutes.”
It took just 10 minutes for the Falcons to get on the board in Sunday’s sectional final, as a free kick taken by junior Jordan Sands ultimately resulted in Merchant Marine’s costly miscue. Sending a well-struck ball into the Mariners’ 18-yard box from the midfield, Sands’ serve skimmed off a defender’s head and into the back of the net at the 10:34 mark.
As deflating as own-goals can be, it was nothing compared to the relentless pressure Messiah would impose.
Finishing the game with a 28-6 advantage in total shots and a seven to one disparity in corner kicks, the Falcons pinned in Merchant Marine throughout, generating opportunity after opportuniy.
Messiah made the most of a chance in the game’s 21st minute, as junior Tom Renko sent in a curling ball from the right side of the Mariners’ 18-yard box, finding junior Danny Thompson streaking across the top of the six-yard area.
Thompson beat his defender to the ball and headed Renko’s serve into the back of the net for a 2-0 lead at the 20:20 point, and Messiah was rolling.
“I thought we came out and played very well in the first half,” said Brad McCarty, Messiah head coach. “It was unfortunate that they scored an own-goal, but it happens. After watching Merchant Marine yesterday, we thought they were a good team. They’re big, strong, athletic and technical. They pass the ball well, and they have good players. I think we really controlled play throughout, though, and had a lot of the ball in the first half.”
While Thompson’s goal would be the only true score for Messiah in the game’s first 45 minutes, the play on the field alluded to more than just a 2-0 difference. The Falcons repeatedly created gorgeous build-ups through dominant possession control, stringing together series of passes that kept the Mariners on their heels.
“Danny’s goal came off a great build-up,” McCarty said. “To think we scored a head ball against these guys … wow. They were so tall and wide. We were fortunate.”
And while Merchant Marine (13-3-5) doubled their first-half shot total in the final stanza, the designated visitors failed to cause serious concern in the Falcons’ backfield. Frey notched a rebound goal at the 69:03 mark, poking in a low, hard shot from sophomore Dan Squire that deflected off Mariners’ sophomore goalkeeper Gary Poulin.
“I thought Merchant Marine did a little bit better job in the second half, as they had nothing to lose at that point,” McCarty said. “But it was great to see our second group get a goal. I thought our second group struggled a little bit at the end of the first half. We implored them to play better and they did. I thought they did a good job of maintaining rhythm, and to get a second shut out in as many days was important.”
Messiah’s reserves had plenty of time to hone their level of play, as McCarty utilized all available players in the win – playing everyone liberally. The Falcons’ starters sat for the final 30-plus minutes of the contest, with none re-entering the game.
Even senior Kyle Fulks got a chance to play – the Fredericksburg, Va. native making his first appearance in goal since injuring his hand in a 3-2 win over DeSales University Sept. 18. Along with sophomore Jake Berry, Fulks came up with one save on the afternoon.
After a thrilling, 2-1 overtime win against Montclair State University to open the NCAA Tournament, Messiah slept-walked through the sectional rounds, outshooting its opponents by a 62-15 difference over the weekend and taking 15 corner kicks while giving up just eight.
“One of the things that’s important to us is focus and determination,” McCarty said. “I thought we were excellent in those areas this weekend.”
Messiah now advances to the NCAA Division III National Semi-Finals, where the team will face the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. The Titans advanced via a 1-0 win over Calvin College Saturday. Bowdoin College and Lynchburg College will meet in the other semi-final. Both games are slated to take place Friday, Dec. 3 at the Blossom Athletic Complex in San Antonio, Texas.
It will be the Falcons’ seventh straight trip to a `Final Four’ and 12th in program history, while McCarty becomes the first Messiah head coach – in any sport – to guide his team to the national semi-finals in each of his first two seasons at the helm.
“I think for me, I’m just really excited that we get to be together for two more weeks,” McCarty said Sunday. “We get to practice tomorrow, baby. We get to maximize our time together. That is what excites me.”
McCarty must also be stimulated by how his team has been playing of late, as 12 of the squad’s last 14 wins have come by shut out – the Falcons averaging 2.9 goals per game during that stretch.
“The way we train and play, it allows us to get better as we continue to work,” McCarty said. “It kind of builds on itself. When we get the opportunity to train, we get better as a group. At the beginning of the year, we were winning on grit and determination. While I still think we have those qualities, we’re now combining them with quality soccer.”
Fans can get detailed information on the 2010 NCAA Division III Men’s Soccer National Championships at NCAA.com. Additional information will be made available on this site as it becomes known.