Nov. 22, 2009

Courtesy of Messiah

Grantham, PA -- It was the end of an era for the Messiah men's soccer team at Shoemaker Field Sunday night, but for all the right reasons.

The Falcons clinched their sixth-straight Final Four appearance and 11th overall after a thrilling, come-from-behind, 2-1 victory against a tough University of Rochester squad in Sunday's NCAA Sectional Final, the team's second heart-stopping rally win in as many nights.

Minutes after Sunday's conclusion of the stunning weekend of soccer at the `Shoe, seniors Brett Faro, Jevon Gondwe and Trey Overholt took one last, longing survey of the pitch they called home before joining the rest of their teammates, family and fans alongside the track for a raucous celebration of the team's 22nd win on the season.

"It's awesome," Overholt said of returning to the Final Four. "Right now though, all I'm thinking about is that this was my last game at the `Shoe."

Bittersweet? Perhaps. But had it not been for a late goal from junior Geoff Pezon, Overholt's final game on his home field may have turned out, well, bitter.

The Yellowjackets came into Sunday's tilt with quite a bit of playoff experience against the Falcons, after facing and being eliminated by Messiah from the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons.

For Rochester (14-2-3), this experience would pay off early.

Messiah (22-1) got the best initial chance just 11 minutes into the match, as freshman Josh Wood took a through ball from sophomore Danny Thompson down the right wing and deep into the right corner of the pitch. Wood was able to send in a low cross towards the top of the goal box, but U of R senior keeper Mike Peacock dove off his line and covered up the cross, ending the threat and sending the Yellowjackets right back on the attack.

On the ensuing possession, Rochester managed to get the ball deep into the Messiah zone, and it ended up on the feet of a wide-open left winger for the Yellowjackets. The player sent in a cross through the box, but it went over everyone's heads and all the way to the opposite side of the box. Here, it was collected by sophomore forward Jake Cargill, who sent another cross right back into the attack, this time perfectly to the penalty spot for senior Scott Cady, the Yellowjackets' leading goal-scorer on the year.

Cady new exactly what to do with it, sending an incredible back-header shot arcing over the defense and into the right upper 90 of the netting, just clearing the valiant dive of Messiah senior keeper Jared Clugston and sending the large Rochester contingent into a frenzy.

Just 11:44 into play, and Messiah was staring at a 1-0 deficit.

This was nothing new, however, as Cady's goal marked the second time in two days that the Falcons had given up an early goal and the lead, after going down 2-0 to Johns Hopkins in the first half of yesterday's game before pulling out the 3-2 double-overtime victory by way of hard work and dedicated play.

"We have given up more goals this year than in years past," said Messiah head coach Brad McCarty. "But we've also scored a lot more than most past teams, too."

Perhaps a poignant thought, it seems the Falcons have figured it's also the best prescription after giving up a lead in the post-season.

Just 10 minutes after the quick goal by the Jackets, it was Pezon who, with a little help, put the teams even again. After some back-and-forth midfield possession, Messiah sent a through ball down the left wing. Pezon took control and raced into the left half of the penalty box with a Rochester defender breathing down his right shoulder. Pezon then ripped a low, lining shot headed toward the far post, but Peacock again dove far to his left and touched the ball slightly off course and possibly out of danger.

For the second time in as many nights, however, the Falcons would get just a little bit of help from the opposing team. Although Peacock got a piece of the shot, it continued on, headed exactly towards the far post, while the Rochester defense raced back in pursuit. Although the ball may have skittered just wide of the post, a defender did not want to risk that chance, and flew in hard to try to play the ball away from danger.

Instead, he only managed to slide the ball straight across the goal line just inside the post, knotting the game at 1-1 and scoring the third own goal on the Shoemaker Field pitch in the span of 24 hours.

From this point on, the Falcons seemed to play as if it were their game to win. Four minutes after the game-tying goal, the Falcons nearly pulled ahead, as Messiah sent in another cross from deep in the left corner. After gaining control inside the left half of the box, sophomore Sam Woodworth took a shot, but it was blocked to the opposite side of the box by a Rochester defender. The ball ended up on the feet of Danny Thompson, who momentarily had an open look from 15 yards out, but the gap closed quickly, and the ball was blocked and sent out to center, momentarily ending the threat.

The last good chance of the half belonged to the Falcons as well, as freshman Dan Squire took possession of a pass after a Yellowjackets' turnover and raced into the left side of the box with a partial breakaway. With a defender coming onto his right shoulder and Peacock coming off his line to defend, Squire sent a low, hard shot toward the far post from 16 yards out. The ball cleared Peacock's outstretched fingers and rolled toward goal, but just barely rolled outside of the post and over the end line for a goal kick.

After that chance, the teams played back-and-forth for the closing fifteen minutes of the half, and exited the pitch with nothing else to show for their work, making the halftime score 1-1. After a quick start by the Yellowjackets, the Falcons had greatly stepped up their play for the rest of the half, outshooting Rochester 7-3 in the half and earning six corner kicks to none for the Jackets.

This disparity in statistics would only grow larger for the Falcons in the second half, as just three minutes into the new period, Messiah nearly put one into the net to take the lead -- only to be stopped by a miraculous save from Peacock.

Sophomore Derek Black sent a low cross from down in the left side of the field, and the ball managed its way all the way to the penalty spot, where it was deflected by a Rochester defender and ended up perfectly on the feet of Danny Thompson. From the right side of the box, Thompson took a quick, hard shot toward the center of the net, back across the flow of play. Peacock was up to the task, however, laying out full to his right to pounce on the ball for one of the most impressive of his four saves on the night --keeping the Falcons from taking the lead.

From this point on, however, Messiah absolutely carried the second half. Most of the possession and attack came in the Rochester end of the field, and at times there were even 10 men playing back on their heels against the meticulous Falcon attack -- a force which ended the second half with a 12-1 advantage in total shots.

As this was the case, Rochester needed to make the best of every counter attack opportunity, and the Yellowjackets nearly put one in just 18 minutes into the second half.

After gaining possession in the midfield, the Jackets were able to play a ball down the left side and into the penalty box, where it was taken up by Rochester senior J.J. Dennstedt. He sent a quick, hard shot headed for the far upper 90, but Clugston made his only save of the night, a beautiful diving effort far to his left, catching the ball all in one motion to keep the net empty.

With potential disaster avoided, the middle of the second half was almost like the calm before the storm for the Falcons. Each team spent most of the time in the midfield with possession trying to crack the other's defense, but to no avail.

With 10 minutes left in the half, however, it seemed as if all the pressure was building up to a breaking point for the Yellowjackets, as the ball seemed to rest more and more in their own zone with the clock winding down in regulation.

It seemed as if the Falcons would seal the deal with just nine minutes left on the clock and what was probably their best opportunity of the evening. Danny Thompson sent in another cross from deep in the right corner, this time to the left side of the box to the head of his brother, junior Nick Thompson. Nick raised high above his defender and got a clean header off from 10 yards out, sending a laser straight for the bottom 90 inside the left post. Thompson's redirect seemed headed in for sure, but Peacock outdid himself from his previous effort, somehow warping across the line and diving across the goal mouth, barely tipping the ball wide of the post and out for a corner kick.

"Their keeper (Peacock) was amazing tonight," McCarty said. "Man of the match for them for sure."

With just four minutes left on the clock, it seemed again as if Messiah would get on the board, as Wood took a pass along the right side of the field all the way down to the corner. After jostling back and forth with his defender, Wood regained possession and dribbled through two more defenders who were closing in on him from each side along the end line. After getting inside the box along the bottom line, Wood sent a pass all the way to the top center of the box for a waiting Pezon. Pezon took a quick shot through the defense for the right post, but the ball rolled just wide and out of bounds.

With the scoreboard still tied up at one goal apiece, it seemed as if the Falcons were headed for a replay of last night's game. Fortunately for Messiah, Pezon was there to cause problems just one more time.

With the clock crawling towards three minutes left, Pezon gained control of a turnover at the center circle and sent a pass to Danny Thompson along the right wing. After carrying the ball downfield for a few dribbles, Danny gave it right back to Pezon, who by this time had made it to the top right corner of the penalty box. Pezon took the pass and dribbled across the top line of the box, looking for space. With the players from each team shuffling from right to left across the field with the flow of play, Pezon suddenly saw an opening, and stopped the ball right near the center top of the circle before ripping his patented left-footer for the right post for Messiah's 19th shot of the night.

With Peacock, and the rest of the defense, standing stock-still expecting the ball to roll just wide again, it instead cleared the post and came to rest against the back of the net, setting off a wild celebration in front of the crazy home stands with the entire Falcons' squad on the field in attendance.

With just three minutes left, Rochester's only choice was to press up for the equalizer, but it was simply a matter of too little too late. The Falcons cleared every possible opportunity far out of danger back across the midfield stripe, and as the final siren sounded the entire squad raced off the bench and swarmed near the center circle to celebrate the fantastic victory.

"We have the ability to score, and we pressed tonight," McCarty said. "Rochester was a great team and an excellent opponent, but we were the better team tonight.

"(Former head coach) Dave Brandt gave us a lot of good principles in this program, like playing hard and with depth," McCarty continued. "For us, it's been important to carry on those principles, especially in games like tonight's."

For the aforementioned seniors, along with Calvin Todd, Josh Mull -- who returned to the pitch briefly again in tonight's match after going down to injury several weeks ago -- and Jared Clugston, it was a bittersweet moment knowing they had punched their ticket to the Final Four on their last game at the `Shoe. The senior class was one of the winnningest classes in Messiah history, going 85-7-4 overall and 47-2-2 at the historic Shoemaker home grounds, while winning championships in two out of the previous three seasons.

The Falcons get a well deserved break for almost two weeks before traveling down to San Antonio Texas and the Blossom Soccer Complex for the 2009 NCAA Division III Final Four. Messiah will compete in one of two national semi-finals on Friday, Dec. 4, taking on Williams College (17-2-2) which defeated Christopher Newort University by a 1-1, double-OT, 4-1 PK decision Sunday to advance. Dominican University (19-1-3) will take on Calvin College (17-4-3) in the other semi-final.

All games will take place at Blossom Soccer Stadium. While specific game times have yet to be announced, the men's semi-finals will take place at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. (EST). The national championship game will be played Saturday, Dec. 5 at 6 p.m. (EST).