Oct. 29, 2009

 

NCAA.com Men's Soccer Blog

By Kevin Scheitrum
NCAA.com

During his six years trading on Wall Street, Robert McCourt learned a number of things on his commute into the city, not the least of which was how much he hated trading on Wall Street.

But one of the positives he took, one of those universal slabs of wisdom, was the benefit of hedging: how to minimize risk while maximizing opportunity.

So, when his Monmouth soccer team suffered its first defeat of the season on Sunday, walking off St. Francis (Pa.)’s artificial turf field on the victim’s side of a 2-0 loss, he understood the implications immediately: if No. 14 Monmouth wants to ensure a trip to the NCAA Tournament this year, the Hawks may not be able to afford another loss.

“[Making the Tourney at-large] is something we’ve discussed the past three years, and we’ve always managed to drop a game that was looked on as a bad loss,” McCourt said. “College soccer teams lose games no matter what.

“And there’s no team that wins the conference tourney every year,” he said.

McCourt’s challenge is one faced by dozens of schools every season, the ones playing in conferences that lag just behind the nation’s elite in both RPI and perception. As conference play limits their strengths of schedule – while all the while demanding perfection – at-large bids often dangle out of reach, with a conference championship often providing a team’s lone shot at cracking the 48-team Tournament field.

And as McCourt’s squad, now nearing the end of the best regular season in its history, enters a weekend in which it takes on both the bottom (Central Connecticut State) and top (Quinnipiac) teams in the Northeast Conference, it’s reminded of last year. A year when the Hawks went 12-3-4, taking their fourth consecutive NEC regular-season title and then promptly falling in penalty kicks to Mount St. Mary’s in the first round of the conference tournament. The loss ended their season, as the Hawks watched from home as Fairleigh Dickinson earned the only NCAA bid from the conference.

So it’s not that a team can’t benefit from an enchanted run through its conference tournament; it’s that, come November, you’d be crazy (or desperate) to count on the magic.

“As for last year, when you bring that stuff up, they realize that you can’t rely on the conference tournament,” McCourt said. “You gotta rely on an at-large bid.”

But this year, as opposed to last, Monmouth – who’s been ranked for a school-record eight straight weeks – has a chance to keep the season going deep into November (or December) without the aid of a tournament that, regardless of conference, reduces a regular season’s body of work into two or three games against teams frantic to stay alive. So much can go wrong.

Conference tournaments, in other words, take sustained success and distill it into chance – something that, for an ex-currency trader, doesn’t jive.

“I think the real measure of a team’s success is your regular season,” McCourt said.

And to make sure that chance doesn’t factor in this year, Monmouth – and other teams positioned near the Hawks in rankings and conference standing, such as Tulsa, Harvard and Loyola Marymount – need to finish with a flourish.

Monmouth climbed to No. 7 in the country in last week’s NSCAA poll – the highest-ever ranking for any Monmouth sport – on the strength of a program-record 12-0-1 start. But one loss later, they sit at No. 14 in the NSCAA poll and No. 21 in the RPI. Losses this time of year, even after a nearly perfect run through the season’s first eight weeks, have proven to be notoriously unforgiving.

Take Cal.

Three weeks ago, the Golden Bears came into their match with Washington at No. 4 in the country, the possessors of one of the country’s most flammable offenses and some of its loftiest expectations. A loss to Washington dropped Cal to No. 10. Two losses, to UCLA and San Diego State, pounded the Bears down to No. 20. Two more, to the same two teams last weekend, knocked them out of the rankings.

But still, with an 8-7-0 record, they stand at No. 45 in RPI. Outside the realm of bubble teams, but not so far away that a burst in the season’s final three games can’t help them.

The Bears play in a conference that features five teams in the RPI top-60. This week, Monmouth sits at No. 21 in the index. The next closest NEC team? St. Francis, at No. 95.

So, any more losses would sting. Possibly not fatally. But that’s not a chance McCourt or the Hawks, after a season that’s seen them rise to national prominence instead of just hanging around the margins, wants to take.  

“[The run] was kind of something that snuck up on us,” McCourt said. “All of a sudden you’re 10-0, you’re undefeated at that point. To be fair the guys have handled it pretty well. I’ve been around teams that were nationally ranked, and it’s the kiss of death.”

“It’s been amazing [this year] because we’re a small school,” he said. “We’re not near the funding in the NEC, and you look at the funding of Akron, Wake Forest, UNC, it’s like our funding is a minor league baseball team playing the Yankees.”