Dec. 5, 2008

Courtesy of Messiah

Newport News, VA — When Messiah head coach Dave Brandt woke up Sunday morning, he had five national championships to his credit. He had taken the Messiah men’s soccer program to seven Final Fours. He had the best winning percentage of any men’s collegiate soccer coach — regardless of level — of all-time.

But he had never seen a game quite like what he was about to witness that afternoon at Christopher Newport University.

Messiah needed two overtimes and a little bit of magic from senior JD Binger to advance to its fifth straight Final Four and eighth overall, defeating host Christopher Newport by a 2-1 score in one of the most bizarre and wacky contests in program history. Playing a man up from the 33rd minute on and having a two-man advantage from the 65th minute forward, the Falcons needed a goal from Binger with exactly one minute remaining in regulation to tie things up 1-1 and save the season.

Sophomore Geoff Pezon then scored the game-winner just 2:58 into the second overtime, pushing Messiah (20-2-2) into the 2008 NCAA Men’s Soccer National Semi-Finals following one of the most gut wrenching post-seasons in school history. Messiah will now face 21st-ranked Loras College (Iowa) in one national semi-final on Friday, Dec. 5, while Stevens Institute of Technology (N.J.) and Amherst College (Mass.) will meet in the other.

“Over the years there’s been some crazy things that have happened to us, but this (game) is near the top,” Brandt said late Sunday. “I don’t ever remember tying a game that late in all my years here. It (the win) is a credit to our guys. It’s never over until it’s over, and soccer people know that, but we were trying to score for a long time, obviously.

“You keep trying until the end.”

It seemed a good guess early on that the end would occur in regulation, as Christopher Newport’s Kevin Greenberg picked up a pair of yellow cards — the first coming at the 15:58 mark and the second being issued at the 32:38 moment — to put the hosts in a hole. Greenberg’s takedowns of junior Jevon Gondwe and Pezon were enough for center official Steve Taylor to eject the Captains’ starting defender, putting Messiah in a man-up situation for the remainder of play.

That advantage didn’t seem to help much, however, as Christopher Newport (17-5-3) scored the game’s first goal just 13:20 into the second half following one of its five corner kicks on the day. The Captains’ Brian Tweed scored a rebound goal following a double-cross in front of the Falcons’ cage, putting CNU up 1-0 and shocking the Messiah side.

“We committed the cardinal sin of giving up a goal when you’re a man down,” Brandt said. “You just can’t do that, and we did. We dug ourselves a big hole.”

Incredibly, the host Captains would again see their personnel depleted less than six minutes later, as starting sweeper Bryan Davis was issued a red card at the game’s 64:10 mark. As Pezon carried the ball down field, Davis came in with a hard hit, cleats high. Taylor wasted no time in pulling out the red card, giving Messiah a rare 11-on-nine advantage.

Still, the Falcons struggled putting offensive build-ups together. Even though Brandt’s team would eventually claim an 11 to five advantage in second-half shots, he knew that a two-man advantage wasn’t necessarily an ace in the pocket.

“I actually told the guys this on the field afterward, but I remembered a 1999 regular-season game where we were up two men against Greensboro College for 75 minutes,” Brandt said. “We didn’t score during that time, and the game ended 1-1. I was cognizant of that today. (Scoring in man-up situations) is harder than it seems. It’s especially harder against a team that’s committed to defending, as Christopher Newport was today.”

Now throwing all nine bodies into its defensive third of the field, the Captains looked to simply hang on until the clock ran out. And while Messiah was able to finish things with a 19-6 advantage in total shots, only six were on the CNU cage. Following Davis’ ejection, the Falcons posted seven shots prior to Binger’s score, while only two — the first from senior Josh Sanders at the 68:53 mark and the second from freshman Derek Black at the 85:09 clip — were on goal.

“We were pressing and we were tired, and we really struggled putting our shots on goal as a result,” said Brad McCarty, Messiah assistant coach. “When you’re down and you feel pressed to score, you start whacking the ball and that’s what happens.”

Fortunately for everyone wearing white and blue on this afternoon, Binger was there to extend the season — and his career. As Messiah frantically pressed forward for the equalizer, Pezon flipped a throw-in with just over a minute remaining. The ball eventually found its way to sophomore Nick Thompson, who fired a low shot from the left side, 22 yards out.

His shot was wide right, but Binger was in the area due to the urgent situation. He trapped Thompson’s shot, turned and fired from eight yards out on a 45-degree angle, and snuck the ball past CNU goalkeeper Justin Wolfe. Wolfe was able to get a piece of the ball with his foot, but it deflected into the upper netting.

Exactly one minute remained in regulation.

With new life, it now seemed only a matter of time before Messiah would break through again. Maintaining their two-man advantage through both overtimes, the Falcons were clearly looking to end things before a penalty-kick finish, out-shooting CNU by a 4-1 difference during extra time.

The Captains gave Messiah a scare just 16 seconds into the second overtime, however, as CNU’s Brian Lybert took the opening tap and ripped a liner from 25 yards out, his blast banging off the post and caroming harmlessly off the end line.

That would be the Captains’ best chance to undo the magical ride that has been Messiah’s post-season, as Pezon scored his second golden goal of this NCAA Tournament with 7:02 remaining in the second overtime. Working on the right side, Black curled a ball to a cutting Pezon through the middle of the field. Pezon redirected the effort to the far post from eight yards out, setting off yet another field-rushing celebration.

Pezon scored the Falcons’ game-winner against Medaille College in a 2-1, overtime decision in first-round play. Sunday’s win was Messiah’s third NCAA Tournament game to go to extra minutes, the most OT thrillers in a single tournament within the program’s storied history.

“I think we are all spent emotionally, physically and mentally,” McCarty said. “Tonight’s result was simply the product of our guys’ willingness to battle to the end.”

Brandt agreed.

“I’m not sure if you can put your finger on one specific thing (that led us to this win),” he said. “ We tried to stay disciplined and do what we do. That’s really all you can say.”

Messiah advances to face Loras College (20-4-1) for the first time in the programs’ history, as the Duhawks are making their second straight trip to the Final Four. Eventual 2007 national champion Middlebury College knocked out Loras in the semi-final round via a 0-0, 3-1 penalty kick decision last season.

In addition to advancing to the Final Four following three overtime contests, this tournament marks the first time that a Messiah team has completed the quest entirely on the road. The Falcons are the only team in this year’s Final Four to not have played a tournament game on their own pitch as well.

Another change is the two-week layoff between sectional and national semi-final play, as the NCAA elected to push back the Final Four by a week at the outset of the season. That change now appears to be good news for Brandt and company, as the Falcons could surely use the time to rest and recover.

“(The change) is new for all eight teams when you take into account that the women’s Final Four was affected as well,” Brandt said. “There’s no precedent here. We’re a little banged up so, for us, we’re not minding it at the moment.”