Nov. 21, 2009

Courtesy of Messiah Athletics

Grantham, PA -- And so, the magic of Messiah soccer lore continues.

Just don't try selling any of that to first-year head coach Brad McCarty.

Just moments after the Falcons' thrilling, come-from-behind, 3-2 double-overtime win over Johns Hopkins University in Saturday night's NCAA Sectional Semi-Final, McCarty was dismissive of talks about `Messiah lore' or `Falcons destiny.'

In his opinion, Messiah's most recent NCAA Tournament win -- despite being the latest in a series of are-you-kidding-did-that-really-just-happen finishes -- was based on tangible, concrete ideals.

"For us to win this game had nothing to do with magic, nothing to do with luck," he said. "It had to do with our depth, with our fitness, with our ability to create scoring opportunities and with our commitment to one another and to a standard that we try to play to. I had belief we would win, and I think our players had belief. But it was for those reasons, and those reasons alone that we did."

Belief was largely hard to come by in the Shoemaker Field stands early in Saturday's Sectional-opening game, as Messiah found itself down by a 2-0 score at the intermission, following a decidedly flat and uninspired opening 45 minutes of play.

Johns Hopkins (16-4-3) got things going in the 16th minute, following a gorgeous passing sequence that left the Falcons' back line stymied: The Blue Jays collected the ball on the left wing and crossed it to the far post, where JHU's recipient played a nifty seam ball to teammate Max Venker.

Venker ripped a shot on frame, but senior keeper Jared Clugston was able to make a diving save. He was unable to collect the effort, however, and the Blue Jays' Scott Bukoski was there to clean up the loose change, simply pushing the ball into a vacant net for a 1-0 lead at the 15:34 mark.

Things would go from bad to worse for McCarty's group just over five minutes later, as another Hopkins' push led to the first Falcons' own goal of the season. After the Blue Jays sent a seemingly innocuous ball into the Messiah 18-yard box, Clugston and senior defender Calvin Todd appeared to miscommunicate on who would clear it. Instead, both converged on the ball, and when Todd's swing attempt at a clear caught only the side of the ball, it spun laterally -- and back into Messiah's empty net.

Just 21:50 into the game, and Johns Hopkins possessed a 2-0 lead over the defending national champions.

"Their first goal was quality," McCarty would later say. "It was a goal built on team play, there was a quality buildup and great interplay. Their second goal obviously was a mistake on our part. I think, in the first half, Johns Hopkins took the initiative and they were the aggressor. They were stronger, they won the 50-50 balls, and they earned the officials' calls. We weren't aggressive, and we definitely weren't prepared for their pressure on both sides of the ball."

Speaking to a team facing only its second 2-0 deficit of the season -- the other was in the Falcons' 2-0 loss at York College Oct. 7 -- McCarty brought up Messiah's field hockey team, which came back from trailing 2-0 to win Saturday's NCAA National Semi-Final against Ursinus College, earning a right to Sunday's NCAA National Championship game.

"I did mention the field hockey team," McCarty said. "I also talked about an NCAA game in the 2000 season which we were down 2-0 at the half, and we came back to win 3-2. I was certainly disappointed in how we played the first half, but our guys are resilient. We wanted to apply more pressure defensively in the second half, be more aggressive. We also wanted to be committed to possessing the ball in their half of the field. For the most part, I think we were able to do that."

Messiah (21-1) seemed to turn on a switch at the outset of the second period, regaining the form that helped the squad to an 88-13 cumulative difference in goals scored heading into Saturday's tilt.

Freshman Josh Wood scored on only Messiah's second shot of the half, heading in a corner kick from junior Geoff Pezon to cut the Blue Jays' lead in half at the 46:28 mark.

Suddenly, the pressure seemed squarely on the shoulders of the visitors.

"(Messiah coaching legend) Layton Shoemaker calls it the worst lead in soccer," McCarty said of JHU's 2-0 halftime advantage. "When we got that first goal (of the second half), it changed the momentum of the game. I was disappointed to be down 2-0 at the half, but to get that first goal ... I thought we were going to win. Whether it was regulation, overtime or PKs, I had belief."

At this point, McCarty most likely had more followers from across the pitch. A total 14-3 Messiah advantage in second-half shots told the statistical story, as the Falcons began to pummel the Blue Jays' back line with reckless abandon.

That pressure resulted in the equalizer in the 77th minute as, following a long throw in from junior Geoff Pezon, it was Hopkins that was (dis)credited with an own goal.

Wood went up for an attempted header off Pezon's pseudo-cross, sharing space in the goal mouth with JHU keeper Ravi Gill.

The ball bounded past both Wood and Gill, however, deflecting off the shoulder of a JHU defender and into the top corner of the goal, giving Messiah new life with just under 14 minutes remaining in regulation.

It would not be until overtime that either team had a quality chance at a game-winner, however.

Hopkins came out in the first overtime stanza and put the first four shots on the board, with none more dangerous than Evan Kleinberg's effort with 6:10 remaining.

Following another nice buildup from the Blue Jays' midfield, Kleinberg beat a pair of defenders and got Clugston off his line, firing a blast from 15 yards out that deflected hard off senior defender Jevon Gondwe, and toward an empty Messiah goal.

With the Falcons' season seemingly ready to end, junior defender Jon Burke raced in from the right side at the last possible nano-second, slide tackling the ball off the endline with inches to spare.

As it would turn out, Burke's save would conclude Hopkins' best push to come away with the upset win.

Following a 5-2 JHU advantage in shots during the first OT, Messiah came up with a 4-0 disparity in the second extra period, again pummeling the Hopkins' defense with waves of pressure. A pair of header attempts from the Thompson brothers -- the first from sophomore Danny, the second from junior Nick -- were both saved off the endline by JHU defenders, while a gorgeous cross-volley from Pezon went just wide 4:52 in.

In the game's 106th minute, however, a Pezon-initated play would lead to the Falcons' game-winner.

After Todd collected a ball in the backfield, he pushed a square ball to Pezon, who exploded down the field following a brilliant first touch.

With a pair of defenders now on his back, Pezon was taken down from behind by JHU's Corey Adams, earning the sophomore defender a yellow card.

With the spot of the foul about 24 yards off the Hopkins' endline and just to the left of the half circle, Messiah prepped a set piece for the ensuing free kick.

Senior Brett Faro ran through the play, touching the ball before Nick Thompson put his right foot to it.

Thompson's effort was a curling rocket which bent around the JHU defensive wall, hammering into the back of the net before it made its way to the far post, upper 90.

A wild celebration ensued -- meshing fans and players alike -- as Messiah had lived to play another day.

With the win, Messiah will now face the University of Rochester (14-1-3) in Sunday's Sectional Final, as the Yellowjackets came from behind to hand Wesleyan University (12-2-5) a 2-1 loss in overtime. It will be the teams' first meeting since the Falcons' 1-0 win at Rochester in last season's NCAA Second Round.

"Rochester is an excellent team," McCarty said. "Our challenge is to turn around after an emotional win and maintain our focus. We will need to play well to win."

Messiah and Rochester will face off on Shoemaker Field at 6 p.m. Sunday for the right to advance to the Final Four, taking place in San Antonio, Texas Dec. 4-5. The Falcons are making their sixth straight trip to the round of the `Elite 8.' Rochester, meanwhile, will be competing in its first ever Sectional Final.

Fans can stay on top of all the action at Messiah's official NCAA Tournament website. WVMM will broadcast both Sunday's women's soccer game and the men's game live on 90.7 FM and via streaming audio on the World Wide Web.