Men's Soccer Survives Elite Eight, Kansas City Bound for Final Four Play
Issue   |   Tue, 12/01/2015 - 23:50

Playing past Thanksgiving and into December for the first time since 2008, men’s soccer looks to make history this upcoming weekend in Kansas City, as the team has a chance to win its first-ever Division III national championship title.
Amherst advanced to its first Final Four since 2008 with a pair of shutout victories two weekends ago on Hitchcock Field, defeating Lycoming, 2-0, in the Sweet 16, and earning a thrilling 1-0 double-overtime victory against Trinity (Texas) in the Elite Eight. Heading into the Final Four, the purple and white stand at 17-1-1 on the season.

On Saturday, Nov. 21, Amherst faced one of their toughest tasks of the season, as they were matched up against Lycoming, a very talented team that was riding a 20-game unbeaten streak heading into play. However, the purple and white handled the situation with aplomb as they struck early against Lycoming and preserved a lead against a talented Warriors team.

Less than 20 minutes into action, Amherst got on the board. Jackson Lehnhart ’17 made a strong throw in and found midfielder Andrew Orozco ’17, who headed it into the back of the net for his fourth goal of the season.

About seven minutes following Orozco’s goal, the purple and white were awarded a penalty kick and had a promising chance to double their lead.

Striker Nico Pascual-Leone ’16 lined up to take the penalty kick and buried it, giving Amherst a 2-0 lead just past midway through the first half. The penalty kick conversion was Pascual-Leone’s 12th goal of 2015 and his second of the season by way of a penalty kick.

Heading into the halftime break, the purple and white held a 2-0 lead over the Warriors and a 9-4 shot advantage.

Although the Warriors were faced with the 2-0 deficit after the first period, Lycoming did not go down without a fight in the second half. The Warriors outshot Amherst, 9-8, following halftime. However, Amherst was able to preserve its 2-0 lead for the remainder of the game, with the defense stepping up big for the purple and white.

Amherst’s shutout against Lycoming was the 14th of the season for the purple and white’s defense and the 48th in the storied career of senior goalie Thomas Bull, who finished with five saves. This shutout was particularly noteworthy for Bull, as it propelled him to brake the career Division III shutout record, passing Marc Church, who logged 47 shutouts for Ohio Northern between 2009 and 2012.

Saturday’s game against Lycoming was a big challenge, but Amherst’s Elite Eight opponent was perhaps even more formidable, as the purple and white squared off against Trinity (Texas), the No. 2-ranked team in the nation and owners of a 17-game unbeaten streak, with a trip to Kansas City on the line.

Although the Tigers took the first shot of the game less than a minute into the contest, Amherst responded with four shots of their own over the next eight minutes, three of which were courtesy of junior striker Chris Martin.

In the 18th minute of action, a shot hit the crossbar, a familiar occurrence for Amherst in the Elite Eight, as the purple and white hit the crossbar on several occasions in a heartbreaking penalty kick loss to Williams back in the 2012 Elite Eight.

However, this time, Amherst was the beneficiary of a shot hitting the crossbar, as defender/midfielder Brent Mandelkorn ’18 narrowly missed the chance to put Trinity (Texas) ahead, rattling one off the crossbar.

About 15 minutes later, Martin had space on the right side and an opportunity to score, but an aggressive charge by Tigers goalie Chad Margotta ’16 helped keep the game tied.

With 10 minutes remaining in the first half, Amherst had a sizable edge over the Tigers in the number of shots attempted, with neither team having a goal to show for. However, the Tigers responded with three consecutive shots of their own, narrowing the gap in shots attempted to 9-6 by the end of a scoreless first period.

Both sides came out of the halftime break determined to score and break a 0-0 stalemate. In the final 20 minutes of regulation, especially, both teams had several promising opportunities to score, but the purple and white and Trinity (Texas) both came up empty in their efforts. Overall, Amherst and the Tigers combined for 17 shots in the second half, but neither side could put across a score.

In the first overtime period, the purple and white outshot the Tigers, 2-0, as senior forward Greg Singer put a shot wide, while midfielder Bryce Ciambella ’17 attempted a shot that was saved by the Trinity goalkeeper. Amherst prevented the Tigers from attempting a shot in the first period of overtime achieved a similar outcome in the second period of overtime.

Early in the second overtime, Pascual-Leone and Singer each attempted shots, but neither could convert on their chances.

Midway through the second period of overtime, Amherst continued their flair for the dramatic as Pascual-Leone found the back of the net for the second straight day. Three consecutive headers off a Lehnhart throw-in, from Orozco to defender Cameron Bean ’17 to forward Aidan Murray ’18, facilitated Pascual-Leone’s 13th goal of the season. His double-overtime goal (his second game-winner in double overtime this season) secured a 1-0 victory and a Final Fourth berth for Amherst.

For the second consecutive day, the defense played particularly well in a shutout victory and Bull had five saves, increasing his career shutout mark to 49 games, the current Division III career record by two shutouts.

Amherst’s double-overtime victory against the Tigers was the fourth time that the purple and white won in double overtime this season; it was also the second game this season in which Amherst won 1-0 in double overtime, after Amherst beat Tufts, the defending national champions, 1-0, on Saturday, Oct. 3.

The men’s soccer senior class made it to Elite Eight three of the four seasons, and this year is the first opportunity for them to play in the Final Four.

Overall, the purple and white performed extremely well against Trinity (Texas), even if they struggled to finish their scoring opportunities.

“I thought we played our best game of the season against Trinity,” coach Justin Serpone said. “However, we didn’t do a great job of finishing chances. If we want to play Saturday night [for the NCAA National Championship], we need to finish chances against [SUNY Oneonta in the Final Four] because there aren’t going to be many.”

This week, Amherst will travel to Kansas City for the Final Four. On Friday evening at 6 p.m., Amherst will take on eighth-ranked SUNY Oneonta, sporting a 19-3-1 record this season and currently riding a 10-game win streak. The Red Dragons, who are making their second consecutive trip to the Final Four, have outscored opponents, 12-0, in four games in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. In the Elite Eight, Oneonta State beat Haverford, 1-0, in overtime.

If Amherst is victorious against the Red Dragons, they will be playing for the NCAA national championship on Saturday, Dec. 5 at 6:30 p.m. in Kansas City, and would be facing the winner of the other national semifinal matchup taking place on Friday night — Calvin (24-0-1 on the season and the top-ranked team in the nation) versus Loras (17-4-1 on the season and ranked 11th in the nation).

Even with a chance to win the NCAA national championship very much within reach, Amherst remains focused on its next opponent.

“Our goals remain unchanged — win the next game,” Serpone said. “This was our goal on Sept. 1 when we came into preseason, and that’s still our goal today. Whether its New England College in the first week in September or SUNY Oneonta in December, we just want to win the next game.”