It is Gut Check Time. Teams seek To Secure A Berth In The NCAA Tournament And enhance Thier Standing In Terms Of Seeding.
ACC Tournament Championship Game – Sunday 2 pm. – Who would have thought at the beginning of the year that a Duke team that was picked in the number five spot and a Notre Dame team that was picked to finish sixth in the preseason Coastal Division poll would meet in the championship match of the ACC Tournament.
Duke was 4-10-3 during the 2020 season while Notre Dame was 8-9-0. A sophomore powered Duke team that was a work in progress under John Kerr last year came into their own this year. Duke advanced to the championship match by defeating Clemson 1-0 at Historic Riggs Field in a match in which sophomore forward Thor Ulfarsson’s (14g, 1a) penalty kick proved to be the difference. A bend but don’t break defense anchored in goal by senior Eliot Hamill kept Clemson off the board despite an overwhelming 27-4 advantage in shots. In addition a counter attack oriented Duke offense was able to push forward into space often enough to take some pressure off the Duke defense and give Blue Devils the edge they needed to win.
A determined Notre Dame team that had defeated Pitt 1-0 compliments of a blast from Dawson McCartney from 35 yards out in overtime when the two faced each other in South Bend during regular season play once again got the best of the Panthers when the two met in Pittsburgh with Jack Lynn and Daniel Russo scoring within a 12 second span in the 77th minute of play to propel the Irish past Pitt 2-0. The win put a halt to Pitt’s 19-match home winning streak. Notre Dame used solid team defense and effective lighting like counter attacks to secure the win. Duke and Notre Dame’s wins pointed out the fact that at this stage of the season the margin for error for any team is small and that brief lapses in play can be costly.
Big South Conference Championship Game – Sunday 1 pm – It should not come as a surprise that a High Point (8-6-3) team that has advanced to the Big South Championship game for the last three years and a Campbell (14-3-2) team that has advanced to the Championship game three out of the past four seasons will face each other Sunday at Buies Creek with the Big South’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament on the line.
Number two seeded High Point defeated Gardner Webb 5-0 and number one seeded Campbell rolled past Winthrop 7-0 in the semifinals to punch their tickets to the championship match. When HPU and Campbell faced each other during regular season play on October 30 the teams played to a scoreless draw setting the stage for what should be an intense and exciting college soccer match with no prisoners taken.
This one is going to hinge on whether or not a High Point defense anchored in goal by redshirt junior Holden Trent, the Big South Goalkeeper of the Year, that has only allowed one goal in eight Big South contests on the season can contain an explosive multi-dimensional Campbell attack that has found the back of the net a total of 51 times. Tyler Young (9g, 9a), the Big South Offensive Player of the Year, Kemy Amiche (6g, 11a), Daniel Hernandez (8g, 1a), Jake Morris (5g, 7a) and Gerard Broussard (5g, 2a) are among a solid contingent of Campbell goal scorers.
Whether or not High Point can contain Campbell and apply the pressure that they need to generate an attack of their own remains to be scene. What is certain is that this should be a very competitive college soccer match.
MAC Championship Game – Sunday 1 p.m. – The MAC used to be Akron and everyone else. Rewind to 2018 when Akron won the MAC Tournament for the 7th consecutive season, secured their 12th consecutive berth in the NCAA Tournament, and advanced to the College Cup. Despite their success in 2018, the Zips were 1-2-1 in MAC regular season play with uncharacteristic losses to West Virginia and NIU. Regardless, they rebounded to win the MAC Tournament and to make a run to the College Cup so there was no reason at the time to think that Akron would not continue to dominate the MAC.
But things change. West Virginia won the tournament in 2019 and Bowling Green the regular season title in 2020 in a season in which there was no MAC Tournament due to COVID. This year Akron was noticeably absent from the four team MAC Tournament.
#3 seed Georgia State (12-5-0), who moved from the Sun Belt Conference to the MAC, defeated West Virginia 1-0 and advanced to the final behind a goal from junior midfielder Justin Guest with an assist from junior midfielder Ross Finnie with 15 minutes remaining in regulation. It was a solid win for Georgia State (12-5-0) and a disappointing loss for a West Virginia (11-3-4) team that was unable to finish a couple of good opportunities. Regardless West Virginia has a resume with several signature wins that would appear to make them a lock for an at-large berth in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
Number one seeded NIU (13-2-2) advanced to the championship game with a 5-2 win over Bowling Green with five different players contributing a goal. The contest was close with NIU up 1-0 at halftime but the Huskies opened up a commanding lead when they scored three goals during a five-minute span early in the second stanza.
The NIU and Georgia State title match should be a very competitive contest. When the two teams faced each other during regular season play NIU won 2-1 in overtime with Pepe Martiez scoring twice for the Huskies. NIU last won the MAC title in 2006 and last appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 2011. Georgia State last appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 2018 as a member of the Sun Belt Conference.
This one will hinge on the ability of Georgia State anchored in goal by junior Gunther Rackenburg to keep a potent NIU attack led by Nick Markanich (15g, 5a) and Martinez (7g, 2a) in check. Give NIU the home field advantage and the edge but this one could easily go either way depending on which team is able to get the best of the possession and set the tempo of the match.
Saint Louis Billikens – Atlantic 10 Conference – The Billiken faithful have long yearned for a return to the glory days of the program. Saint Louis last appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 2016 but you have to go back to 2003 when Dan Donigan was the head coach to find a season in which Saint Louis advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament and back to 1997 when Bob Warming was at the helm of the program to find a year in which they appeared in the College Cup.
The 2021 team under the guidance of head coach Kevin Kalish who is in his fourth year as the Billiken mentor has a chance to make a deep run in the tournament but a return to the College Cup this year might be a stretch. Saint Louis has been productive on both sides of the ball with an attack powered by junior forward Simon Becher (11g, 8a), the Atlantic 10 Offensive Player of the Year, and catalyst junior midfielder John Klein (4g, 15a), a First Team All-Atlantic 10 selection, and a defense that features sophomore midfielder Kipp Keller, the A-10 Defensive Player of the Year, goalkeeper Patrick Schulte and backs A.J. Palazzolo and Mujeeb Murana that has a 0.69 goals-against-average with eight shutouts.
The Billikens face Fordham on Friday at noon in the semifinals of the A-10 Tournament.
Showdown in the Pac-12 – Oregon State 2 – Washington 2 – These two teams squared off Thursday night with standing in the Pac-12 on the line. The record crowd on hand at Lorenz Field in Corvallis was treated to an exciting back and forth contest. When it was all said and done it ended in a draw but a tie was good enough for Oregon State to claim its first-ever outright Pac-12 Championship.
The match was scoreless at halftime but things quickly heated up in the second stanza when sophomore midfielder Mouhameth Thiam drew first blood for the Beavers when he sent a rocket into the back of the net from outside the box in the opening minute of the half.
Washington dug deep and tied it at 1-1 with defender Ryan Sailor doing what he has often done this year for the Huskies when he drove a header out of a corner kick served in by Charlie Ostrem into the net. With less than five minutes remaining in regulation Washington midfielder Gio Miglietti converted a header to give the Huskies a 2-1 advantage. Washington was four minutes away from a win but a gutsy Oregon State team came up with the equalizer and brought the Oregon State faithful on hand to their feet when redshirt senior forward Tsiki Ntsabeleng scored with a little more than a minute remaining in regulation.
Neither team was able to find the back of the net in the ensuring two ten-minute overtime periods and the contest remained deadlocked at 2-2 at the conclusion of 110 minutes of play. Sam Fowler had a seven save evening in goal with several huge stops for Washington while Adrian Fernandez had a four save evening between the pipes for Oregon State.
Washington completed regular season play with a 14-1-2 overall record and 6-1-2 mark in Pac-12 play with their lone defeat in conference play a 3-2 loss to Oregon State when the two teams faced each other on October 22 with Mouhameth Thiam’s penalty kick in the 87th minute giving Oregon State the edge they needed to prevail.
Oregon State concludes regular season play with a 12-2-3 overall record and 7-1-2 mark in Pac-12 play with their lone loss in conference play a 3-2 setback against UCLA.
Both Washington and Oregon State have high RPI’s which positions both for a top seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
Big East Championship Game – Sunday Noon – In another “It is not over till it is over” contest, Georgetown squeaked past a determined Villanova team 1-0 with freshman midfielder Joe Buck coming through in the clutch for the Hoyas when he scored out of a free kick put In play by sophomore Chris Hegardt in the final minute of regulation. Buck did what the best goal scorers do when he stayed focused and sent the ricochet of his own header back into the net to propel number one seeded Georgetown into the championship match where they will face a Providence team that thumped them 3-0 when the two met back on October 13 in Providence. Georgetown had a commanding 19 to 3 advantage in shots in the win over Villanova.
Villanova concludes play with a 11-7-1 overall record and 5-5-1 mark in Big East play. Villanova looks to be on the bubble as far as a berth in the NCAA Tournament with a four-game losing streak in the early part of October putting a dent in their win-loss record.
Number two seeded Providence topped Butler 2-0 in the semifinals to punch their ticket to the championship game. The Friars scored both of their goals in a one minute span during the 65th minute of play with forward Brendan McSorley converting a header out of a corner kick and forward Gevork Diarbian slotting a shot into the frame from close range that was set up by a nice move into space off the dribble and pass from midfielder Simon Triantafillous.
Providence did a really good job of creating and converting the scoring opportunities that came their way in their regular season win over Georgetown and the Hoyas never really seemed to settle into a rhythm that enabled them to generate opportunities to score. This one could go either way.
Southern Conference Championship Game – Sunday 1 pm. – Number four-seeded Belmont (13-4-1) advanced past five seed ETSU 1-0 in the quarterfinals and upset number one seeded UNCG 2-1 in the semifinals to punch their ticket to the championship game on Sunday. Senior midfielder Jack Shaw converted a header out of a corner kick with a double assist from center midfielder Niccolo Dagnoni and forward Liam O’Brien. O’Brien then netted what proved to be the game-winning goal when he decisively sent a diving header from six yards out into the left side of the net. O’Brien’s header was set up by a nice pass from Shaw to give Belmont the scoring punch they needed to pull off the upset of UNCG in Greensboro. The Spartans pushed forward numbers trying to get back into the match and cut the lead to 2-1 with less than five minutes remaining compliments of a goal from Fernando Garcia but a bend but don’t break Belmont defense anchored in goal by UNC transfer Drew Romig held on for the win.
Belmont will face a Mercer (9-7-1) team in the championship match that defeated them 3-2 in overtime when the two teams faced each other in Macon on October 23. Mercer jumped out to a 2-0 advantage but Belmont came back to tie the match and send it into overtime where forward Trevor Martineau came through in the clutch with the game-winning goal for Mercer. The Bears have had an up and down season and will come into the championship match off an impressive 4-0 win over Furman powered by a three-goal evening from midfielder Dylan Gaither.
Mercer has looked really good at times but they have also been porous at times on the defensive side of the ball allowing opponents to score 3 or more goals in four of their seven losses on the season. The key for Mercer looks to be their ability to settle into a balance that will enable them to apply pressure without leaving themselves vulnerable on the defensive side of the ball.
The Southern Conference’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tourney is on the line in this one. It is unlikely that the Southern Conference will be the recipient of an at-large berth.
The Wild Wild Big West Conference – Number two seeded UC Irvine and top seeded UC Santa Barbara will square off on Saturday at 7 pm in Harder Stadium with the Big West Conference title and automatic berth into the NCAA Tourney on the line.
The Gauchos earned the number one seed by virtue of having a better goal differential than UC Irvine. This one looks to be a dandy. When the two teams met during regular season play they tied 1-1 with UC Irvine’s Jake Moon sending a header into the net to score the equalizer for UC Irvine with less than half a minute remaining in regulation.
Both of these teams had close semifinal contests. UCSB advanced to the final with a 1-0 win over UC Davis with forward Nemo Philipp sending a beautiful left-footed shot into the right side of the frame from outside the box in overtime to give the Gauchos a 1-0 win. UC Irvine advanced to the championship game by advancing past UC Riverside in a match that was settled by a penalty kick shootout after it was tied 2-2 at the end of 110 minutes of play. UC Irvine struggled in the early part of the season with a 2-6-1 record but they have gotten on track and are unbeaten in their last eight contests.
UC Santa Barbara has an RPI of 88 and UC Irvine an RPI of 129. Accordingly, both teams need a win in this one to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tourney.
Look for a good crowd to be on hand at Harder Stadium for this one. It could go either way.
Picture from Belmont Athletics