Nov. 15, 2010

Grantham, PA -

Courtesy of Messiah Athletics

After winning 10 of its last 11 games by shutout and posting a three-goal margin of victory during that stretch, Messiah went back to its traditional, post-season drama Sunday night at Shoemaker Field.

Senior Nick Thompson erased a 1-1 tie just 2:30 into the initial overtime period with a hard-hit, knuckling shot from 22 yards out, helping Messiah beat Montclair State University by a 2-1 score in the Second Round of NCAA Tournament play.

It was Falcons' sixth NCAA Tournament overtime victory in the last three seasons alone and eighth by a singular goal, making the `Big Dance' seem a bit more like the `Big Chance' whenever Messiah has been involved.

It has yet to prove harmful, however, as Grantham's version of the cardiac kids survived and advanced to the NCAA Sectional round for the 13th consecutive year, and will face Medaille University next weekend.

"We're pleased and fortunate to have at least one more week together," said Messiah head coach Brad McCarty afterward. "At this point in the year, anybody can beat anybody. There are (approximately) 400 (NCAA Division III soccer playing) teams in the country, and there's 32 teams left. There are no favorites. These are competitive teams, good teams, teams that have won NCAA games before. We're thankful and we're fortunate."

Messiah (18-1) had to overcome a strong, physical Montclair State side that throttled SUNY-Maritime by a 3-0 score in Thursday's NCAA First Round contest, outshooting the Privateers by a 30-3 difference.

As the Falcons looked to adjust to their first game in over a week's time -- the team advanced to Sunday's Second Round by virtue of an opening-round bye -- McCarty said his group had to solve Montclair State's pressure throughout the midfield.

"Montclair State is a good team," he said. "They are well coached, they're well organized and they made it tough on us. I thought we played well in the first half, and I thought both our first group and our second group played well. I thought we created a number of scoring opportunities, and I was pleased with how we played."

Boasting a 6-4 lead in first-half shots and a 4-0 advantage in first-period corner kicks, Messiah was first to strike in the game's 18th minute. After the Falcons' final corner kick of the period was cleared by the Red Hawks' defense, Thompson found senior Geoff Pezon on the right wing, just feet off the end line.

Unmarked with yards of space in front of him, Pezon calmly gathered the ball and sent what looked to be a cross into the Montclair State 18-yard box.

Instead, his curving serve hit the far post dead on, caroming back across the width of the goal and behind Red Hawks' sophomore keeper Anthony Rogic at the 17:58 mark.

The goal was nearly identical to Pezon's game-winner against Elizabethtown College a week earlier, save for two details: His finish Saturday came off his left foot instead of his head, and it was unclear whether or not he was attempting to shoot the ball to begin with.

"You'd have to ask Peez," McCarty said in Saturday's post-game press conference. "I'm pretty sure that was a cross. He knows better than to shoot the ball from there."

Regardless of intent, Pezon's score helped Messiah to a 1-0 halftime lead -- a tally that reflected the squad's run of play. Montclair State's best chance at a first-period equalizer came with just over five minutes to go, where a long punt from Rogic was nearly transformed into a Red Hawks' goal. MSU freshman Dan Mendoza corralled the backstop's blast on the right side cut the ball back to the middle of the field, launching a left-footed blast that went just wide of the Falcons' cage.

Sadly, it would not be the last time that a Rogic punt would cause Messiah issues.

Just over 17 minutes into the second half, Rogic saved a free kick from Thompson and launched another drop kick into the nighttime sky, this time his effort finding the feet of teammate Kevin Zalewski. Unlike Mendoza, Zalewski placed his ensuing shot on frame, beating sophomore goalkeeper Jake Berry on a low volley -- and tying up the game with 27:51 to play in regulation.

"In the second half, the game was a little more end to end," McCarty said. "There were periods of time where they made it tough on us, but when we broke pressure we found space and scoring opportunities."

As MSU continued its attempts to control the midfield, it was Messiah that had the better of the chances through the end of regulation. Just four and a half minutes after the Red Hawks knotted things up, Thompson took a cross from junior Kent Ramirez and sent a shot screaming just inches over the crossbar from 12 yards out. With 13:27 to play, a long throw in from Pezon nearly resulted in a Falcons' score, but junior Danny Thompson's toe poke rolled just wide of the goal from four yards away -- the Hudson, Ohio native battling a pair of defenders on his back.

At the end of 90 minutes, Montclair State had forced a 1-1 draw.

It would last just 2:30 into the extra session.

After Pezon won a ball near the midfield stripe and turned toward goal, he slipped a through ball to Nick Thompson, who was making a run down the center of the pitch.

Thompson took carried the ball for several yards before lacing a right-footed knuckler from 22 yards out in stride, sending his effort directly in the path of Rogic.

It would not be the best moment for the Red Hawks' keeper.

Sitting back on his line as Thompson's shot came bounding toward him, Rogic squatted and put his arms to the turf to scoop up the attempt. But Thompson's effort had either too much pace or too much movement, as the ball caromed off Rogic's arms and through his legs.

It settled into the back of the netting.

As the Falcons raced to the Shoemaker Field stands to celebrate in front of their fans, Montclair State players fell to the turf dejectedly. For Red Hawks' upperclassmen, the feeling was all too familiar.

In the 2008 NCAA Sectionals, it was Nick's younger brother Danny that did the honors, scoring a golden goal in double-overtime to beat Montclair State by a 1-0 score at Christopher Newport University.

"We're excited to get through," McCarty said. "There are a lot of very good teams handing in their uniforms after this weekend. It's very difficult to win at this point in the year."

McCarty had to look no further than Messiah's portion of the NCAA Tournament bracket to acknowledge that sentiment, as sixth-ranked Stevens Tech, seventh-ranked Swarthmore College and 21st-ranked University of Rochester all lost. The Falcons will next face Medaille at a time and place to be determined, while Muhlenberg College will take on the United States Merchant Marine Academy in the other NCAA Sectional Semi-Final.

The Falcons will be facing Medaille in NCAA Tournament play for the second time in three seasons, claiming a 2-1 win over the Mavericks in 2008 First Round play. Fittingly, that win came in overtime as well.

"Medaille is very organized and very good defensively," McCarty said. "It was very difficult the last time we played them, and I think it's going to be very difficult this time."

Messiah will travel to Muhlenberg College next weekend to compete in the Sectional round of competition. The NCAA will game dates and times Monday. Details will be provided at as they become known. Fans can stay connected through the entire NCAA Division III Men's Soccer Championships via the NCAA Interactive Bracket.