Benzing, Millersville raising the bar
Freshmen goalie has yet to allow goal in NCAA tournament
No matter which sport or division, every year in college athletics torches are passed down from graduating seniors to younger student-athletes as programs continuously replenish their rosters.
When former Millersville goalkeeper Matt Langione concluded his soccer career last season, he passed the torch to Brad Benzing, who had redshirted in his first year with the Marauders. The only difference to this natural process was that Langione remained with the team as the Marauders’ goalie coach, and has mentored his young protégé to a stellar season that includes the program’s first appearance in the NCAA Division II men’s soccer semifinals.
Langione was a four-year starter in goal, and holds a plethora of single-season and career school records, but Benzing is off to a great start in matching them. The Baltimore, Md., native has already tied his predecessor for the single-season shutout record of 11 after he sparked the Marauders to a 0-0 contest against Rockhurst in the NCAA quarterfinals. The game was decided by penalty kicks, sending Millersville to the semifinal round.
Head coach Steve Widdowson, also a former goalie at Rutgers, believes the connection between Benzing and Langione has been an integral part of his goalkeeper’s success.
“[Benzing] has developed a lot during the season and has shown a lot of maturity and a lot of leadership,” Widdowson said. “He’s had a year of playing now, and I think working with Matt Langione last year during his redshirt year, he got to see the environment and learn the game from there. With them working as a player and coach together this year, I think that relationship has blossomed even more. It’s flourished. They’ve worked so good together to get Brad to where he is at this point.”
Langione says the biggest component of the game the pair have worked on is Benzing’s communication with his teammates on the field, especially his backline.
“I give him a few pointers every once in a while during practice, but Brad is a solid goalkeeper,” Langione said. “He has come from great clubs and played for some of the best age group teams. The fundamentals are there and he has a great work ethic.”
Last year, Benzing would joke with Langione that records were meant to be broken, and the two would just laugh about it, but the younger keeper truly appreciates his forerunner’s knowledge of the game.
“I think it is really fulfilling for him to coach someone who can break those records,” Benzing said. “He has really helped me master my game and technique. He believes in me. He has played such a big role in this year’s accomplishments.”
Benzing has led the Marauders to six consecutive shutouts entering the NCAA semifinals, with five of those coming in the postseason. He owns a 0.86 goals against average and .829 save percentage entering the final weekend of play, which rank 24th and 13th in Division II, respectively.
“I would have enjoyed having somebody like myself around who just came off of four years playing,” Langione said. “I think it is a good thing for me to be able to share my experiences with him, and the things that worked and didn’t work.”
One moment of Langione’s career was eerily similar to Benzing’s postseason experience. In 2008, Millersville played Northern Kentucky in the NCAA quarterfinals, but the Marauders came up short, falling 5-4 in penalty kicks while Langione was in goal. It was a disappointing loss for Millersville, but this year’s victory against Rockhurst helped lessen the letdown of that outcome.
“It was a tremendous game for a 0-0 game,” Widdowson said. “There were a lot of chances for both sides. It was exciting. Once we got to penalty kicks, it was something we were nervous about, but we were confident on that day. We actually struggled all season with penalty kicks, going just 2-for-7. In 2008, when we were in the quarterfinals, we lost on penalty kicks -- our seniors were freshmen that season. This time they came out on top and it was a tremendous feeling.”
Langione was confident that Benzing would help the Marauders advance this time.
“I knew as the game went on Brad would get stronger in goal,” Langione said. “All season and in the playoffs, he has come up with some big saves for us in the final minutes of games. I knew the longer the game went on that he was determined to get that win. When it went to penalty kicks I said to him, ‘this is for you.’ I knew he was confident enough to pull it out for his team.”
It was a pressure-packed situation, but Benzing was thankful to have a chance to be the hero.
“It was such a big chance for the goalie to come up big and represent this team,” Benzing said. “I was thankful to have the opportunity to be in a situation where I could be great.”
With the victory, Millersville advanced to the NCAA semifinals for a contest against third-ranked Fort Lewis on Dec. 1. While Widdowson is taking his first team to the national semifinals, the coach has been in a similar situation as a player. He was a freshman and the starting goalkeeper for Rutgers when the Scarlet Knights advanced to the Division I Men’s College Cup in 1994. While Rutgers lost to eventual national champion Virginia in the NCAA semifinals that season, Widdowson -- a native of England -- learned a lot about American collegiate athletics.
“I talked to the team about enjoying the time leading up to the semifinals -- not just playing, but the whole experience,” Widdowson said. “I think that was a slight regret I had as a player. It was my first season as a player and I didn’t have an appreciation of how big any final four for any sport was. I didn’t realize how big it is actually was. I told my players that 10 years from now they’ll look back and realize how amazing the achievement was.”
Widdowson’s Rutgers team was the only unranked squad in the semifinals in 1994, finishing the year with a 14-10-3 record. Millersville has posted a 14-6-2 mark this year while the other three teams in the field (Lynn, Franklin Pierce and Fort Lewis) have a combined five losses on the season.
“They weren’t supposed to make it either,” Benzing said. “We’re sort of in the same situation. On paper, we’re not supposed to beat any of these teams. But, I have no doubt in my mind that we can take care of business.”