For the first time in Wheaton men’s soccer program history the Lyons hosted the NCAA Tournament First & Second Rounds on Keefe Field. Three other teams traveled to Wheaton with only one advancing slot for a team to qualify for the “Sweet 16” just games away from a National Championship berth.
The Lyons entered the NCAA tournament with an at large bid credited to an overall 16-3-2 record before the tournament qualifying them as the second best team in New England behind program rivals Brandeis University. There was some speculation as to whether or not the team would qualify after giving up an automatic bid when losing to Babson College in the NEWMAC Tournament Semi-Finals. However, the team later found out that they had put themselves in a good enough position before the loss to host the tournament bringing in Daniel Webster College, Dickinson College, and Tufts University.
“I thought we may have lost our chances to host, but it was a great feeling during the selection show once we got the news,” said senior captain Luke Finkelstein ’15. “Being able to do something that hadn’t been done is always what you strive for as a team and a program.”
Under 21- year head coach Matthew Cushing, the team has previously made it to the national quarterfinals twice and a trip to the Final Four once in 2003. Both occasions in which three-time All-American and current assistant coach, James Greenslit ’06, competed in as a player.
“I have a lot of affinity for the Wheaton College Men’s Soccer Program and it was unbelievable to be a part of the first ever NCAA Tournament Regional Hosting team,” said Greenslit. “It was extremely rewarding knowing how much time and effort it took in recruiting, developing players and changing the Wheaton soccer culture from a few years ago.”
Despite coaching efforts from a dedicated coaching staff consisting of Cushing, Greenslit, and first year assistant coach Yonha Adrabi, the coaching staff acknowledges where the development of this program truly lies. “The credit goes to our players for the effort and commitment to improve in the off season and this fall to make it the successful season that it was,” said Greenslit.
The Lyons were seeded #1 in the pod and were set to take on Daniel Webster College who were seeded as #4. The winner would advance to take on the winner of the
Dickinson vs. Tufts contest to determine who would advance to the following weekends sectional round. Wheaton had only matched up against Daniel Webster twice in program, history beating them on both occasions, but the team wasn’t looking to underestimate their opponents. They were looking to bounce back from a similar position just the previous weekend where they were seeded as the #1 team in the NEWMAC conference but lost to Babson College who also came in as the #4 seed.
“We knew it was a game we could win, but we didn’t want to come out underestimating them, as that was a problem for us in the past,” said Finkelstein.
Daniel Webster earned an automatic bid into the tournament after beating Elms College 2-1 in the New England Collegiate Conference Tournament. Despite coming off a conference championship, the Eagles weren’t prepared to handle the Lyons that were determined to redeem themselves from their loss against Babson at home. The game ended with a 5-0 scoreline with goals from Noah Kossoff ’16, Travis Blair ’15, Matheus
Goncalves ’15, and Liam Daniels ’18 advancing the Lyons to the next round of play against Tufts University who defeated Dickinson later that day.
Senior leading goal scorer Travis Blair ’15, ranked second in program history with 50 goals and 119 points, expressed how vital winning the first game of the tournament was to Wheaton men’s soccer.
“That first NCAA game against Daniel Webster was immense,” said Blair. “To shake off the last loss and give a great performance all around meant a lot to the team, especially being the first Wheaton men’s soccer team to host meant even more for us.”
With less than a day to prepare for the next round, the Lyons were ready to display great efforts to advance to the next round against an athletic and technical Tufts team. In a constant back-and-fourth match the Lyons spent the majority of the game looking for an equalizer after senior back Sam Williams gave the Jumbos of Tufts an early lead scoring in the 4th minute of play. Tufts goalkeeper came up massively in saves against attempts from Travis Blair in the 19th minute, Noak Kossoff in the 75th minute and then just seconds later with Stephan Nkom in the 76th minute.
The Jumbos would then find an insurance goal at the 80th minute mark from junior midfielder Connor Brown off of a set piece play. With just ten minutes left, the two goal deficit was too much for the Lyons to respond to and found Tufts victorious and on to the next round of tournament action.
“It’s obviously not the result we would have wanted, but things don’t always go your way on the day,” said Finkelstein in response to the loss.
Reflecting back on the season, this Wheaton men’s soccer program has accomplished monumental goals over the past few years. Winning the NEWMAC Tournament in the 2013 season and then winning their first game of the NCAA Tournament was a first in several years for the program. Then following b y hosting both tournaments this past season set up a strong foundation for the program to build off of in years to come.
“I am so proud of what we achieved as a team especially seeing where we came from my freshmen year,” said Blair. “To be where we are now really shows how far this team has come and I couldn’t be more happy with my teammates.”
Head coach Matt Cushing expressed the amount of effort it will take for this program to keep moving forward and working on becoming an NCAA Division III powerhouse team once again.
“Returning players need to work hard in off season and we need to replace our graduating senior class with another strong recruiting class,” said coach Cushing. “I am confident in what we have in the program now can keep us competing for NEWMAC championships and NCAA tournament berths.”