Dec. 3, 2009

By Gaylon Krizak
Special to

The semifinal field for the NCAA Division III men’s soccer tournament is fairly easily divided into two categories.

There’s the Messiah Falcons.

And there’s everyone else.

“We don’t think of ourselves as the favorite,” said Brad McCarty, in his first season as Messiah’s head coach after eight as an assistant. “When you have four teams playing in a weekend, any given team can win. Middlebury (which got on a roll to win the 2007 national title) showed that in the past. Our mentality is that we’re going to have to play our best if we want to get to Saturday’s (championship) game.”

How good is the Falcons’ best? Messiah is the defending national champion, last year having captured its sixth D-III title this decade, and is making its ninth semifinal appearance in 10 years, including six in a row.

Six, by comparison, is twice as many as the combined all-time semifinal appearance total for Dominican, Williams and Calvin – all by Williams between 1993 and ’98, including the Ephs’ national championship season of 1995.

The prevailing theme is that history and reputation go out the window once the teams step on the Blossom Soccer Stadium pitch Friday. But those aren’t the only factors on the Falcons’ side.

“I think the guys’ commitment to each other and our ability to play an attacking style of soccer and our willingness to work hard [have set Messiah apart], McCarty said. “And there’s definitely an advantage that our players have been here before, but the reality is, you know what, it’s hard to advance. It’s hard to get past a semifinal and get through to a final. … At this point, it’s anybody’s trophy to win.”

Messiah (22-1) enters its 5 p.m. Central semifinal match-up with Williams (17-2-2) as the No. 1 team in the final NSCAA/adidas rankings. The Falcons have the nation’s top scoring offense, averaging 3.86 goals per game, and have won 13 straight.

Geoff Pezon leads the Messiah attack, ranking third nationally with 0.78 assists per game to go with 15 goals. His goal with not quite three minutes left in regulation sent the Falcons past Rochester, 2-1, in the sectional final.

Yet Messiah’s road to San Antonio, even though it did not leave Grantham, Pa., before this week, has not been easy. The Falcons had to come from behind to defeat Rochester, one day after needing two overtime periods to oust Johns Hopkins.
Williams, which played each of its first four tournament games on the road, needed penalty-kick shootouts to defeat York – the only team to defeat Messiah this season – and Christopher Newport in the sectionals after playing each to a 1-1 tie through regulation and two OT periods.

The Ephs’ main one-two scoring punch is Gaston Kelly (sixth nationally in assists per game) and Charlie Romero, who has eight game-winners among his 12 goals.

The 7:30 semifinal matches two newcomers to the national stage, including one that entered the playoffs not only unranked but without even a vote in the final regular-season poll.

The Calvin Knights (17-4-3) have few individual standouts; in fact, their only nationally-ranked player, goalie Jared Rushlau, is injured and has not played in the postseason. But junior Ryan Bratt – third team most of the season behind Rushlau and Michael Dolan, who also is injured – has been solid, allowing three regulation-time goals in four tournament games and winning two PK shootouts, including the sectional final vs. Transylvania.

“I think that pressure we had in winning those two shootouts is going to be important,” Knights coach Chris Hughes said. “I think we’ve got great confidence going in, and we’re going to concentrate on finishing it off in the first 90 minutes – and if not that, the first 110 minutes.

“The guys are very excited to be down here in San Antonio; coaching staff, the same. … There’s lots of excitement around campus and lots of smiles on the players’ faces right now.”

Calvin will face Dominican (19-1-3), which statistically comes in with the best offense/defense blend among the four semifinalists. The Stars score 3.04 goals per game (ninth nationally) and allow 0.38 (fourth).

Their 2-0 sectional-finals victory over Whitworth was the Stars’ third straight shutout of a ranked opponent, coming on the heels of 1-0 playoff wins over Wisconsin-Whitewater and Loras. Dominican hasn’t lost since falling to always formidable Wheaton in mid-September.

One thing that should not faze these teams from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan and Illinois is the unexpectedly wintery weather predicted for Friday. Up to an inch of snow is in the forecast, with temperatures not expected to reach 40.
“Home-field advantage somehow, right?” Hughes said. “More like what we’re used to up north.”