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Muhlenberg College

Thursday, November 11, 2010

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NCAA next stop for men’s soccer

Scores of New Jersey commuters pass through Hoboken every morning en route to New York City. But whoever heard of going through Hoboken to get to San Antonio?

That’s part of the itinerary for the Muhlenberg men’s soccer team, which will travel to Stevens Institute NCAA soccer of Technology this weekend to play in the opening round(s) of the NCAA Tournament. It’s the first step on a journey that the team hopes ends up at the Division III “Final Four” at Blossom Soccer Complex in Texas the first weekend of December.

The Mules (11-2-6) open up play against Keene State (14-4-2) on Saturday at 1:30 in the second game of the day. Host Stevens (14-1-3) takes on Hunter (10-7-3) in the opener. The two winners meet Sunday at 1:00 with a berth in the “Sweet 16” at stake.

Muhlenberg, ranked 21st in Division III by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America and 25th by D3soccer.com, features a good blend of experience and youth. The Mules usually start two freshmen, three sophomores, two juniors and four seniors. But only two of the current players, seniors Matt Cecconi and Mike Williams, have ever played in an NCAA Tournament game. Both were freshmen and came off the bench in Muhlenberg’s 3-2 first-round loss to Virginia Wesleyan in 2007.

“I just remember the atmosphere being completely different than any other game I had played in that year,” recalled Cecconi. “I thought the conference tournament that year was big, but the NCAA is that much bigger than everything else.”

Part of what makes it so big is the finality of the national tournament. “This past weekend, even after we lost [to Swarthmore in the Centennial Conference championship game], we had hopes of playing again. But we know if we don’t win this weekend we’re done,” said Cecconi.

Keene State logo In order to make it past this weekend the Mules must first make it past Keene State, which is ranked seventh in the New England Region. The Owls won the Little East Conference championship and enter the NCAAs on a season-best six-game winning streak

Keene’s conference title came under some unusual circumstances. The Owls appeared to have defeated Mass.-Dartmouth, 2-1, in a semifinal match last Wednesday, but the game was
Nate Squire
Sophomore midfielder Nate Squire is one of seven Mules to have started every game this year.
protested due to an inadvertent whistle before Keene’s first goal. The NCAA upheld the protest, and the teams replayed their game on Friday, with Keene State winning 2-1 again. On Sunday, the Owls completed their run to the title with a 1-0 win against Rhode Island College in their third game in five days.

Keene State has outscored its opponents, 37-25, and is led in scoring by sophomore Joe Senecal, who has nine goals, including the winner with 1:37 left in regulation in the championship game. Fourteen other players have scored between one and four goals, and the Owls have used four different starting goalies.

But Muhlenberg isn’t worrying too much about those stats. “The main thing is that it doesn’t matter who we’re playing. It’s all about us,” said Cecconi. “We’re not going to be trying to exploit their weaknesses so much as playing to our strengths. In the conference tournament I thought we played some of our best soccer of the season.”

The Mules really clicked in their semifinal match, posting a 4-0 win against a Franklin & Marshall squad that had jumped ahead of them in the NSCAA rankings. Muhlenberg held a 1-0 lead with less than 20 minutes to play in the final against ninth-ranked Swarthmore before falling, 2-1.

Muhlenberg has outscored their opponents, 48-12, and features a pair of double-digit goal-scorers in junior Cody Antonini (16) and sophomore Danny Way (10). Senior Jason Daniels sports a 0.60 goals-against average and ranks 32nd in Division III with a save percentage of .860.

After playing in the rugged Centennial Conference for the better part of the last two months, the Mules will face an opponent that is not familiar with them. Of course, Muhlenberg doesn’t know much about Keene State either.

“I think it’s going to be one of those games where the first 15-20 minutes are not going to be too exciting,” said Cecconi. “The teams will be just trying to feel each other out. Once we figure out their style we’ll try to incorporate our tactics and play Muhlenberg soccer.”

Muhlenberg soccer has gotten the team a long way, but Cecconi feels there’s more to come.

“I think we have a shot at going far. We have to be mentally tough and not get caught up in the hype. We just need to play our game like we have all year.”

For tournament information, including links to live stats and free live video, click here.

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