Men’s soccer works its OT magic in NJAC opener

McCartney curls in the game-winner against the Ospreys. (Photo courtesy of the Sports Information Desk)

Thanks to another case of overtime heroics, the suddenly clutch men’s soccer team prevailed in its NJAC opener against Ramapo College, 1-0, after beating FDU-Florham 4-3 in a wild mid-week game to stay unbeaten in regulation.

The Lions (6-1-1) were uncharacteristically held scoreless through 93 minutes against Ramapo, but beat the Ospreys for the first time since 2010 on a golden goal free kick from junior midfielder Kevin McCartney.

“As I set up for the free kick, I had a confident feeling about it,” McCartney said. “It was placed in the area of the field where I’m usually consistent with my free kicks. It was the perfect distance from the goal to hit it with my instep and bend it over the wall into the top corner, which is exactly what I did.”

It was the Lions’ second consecutive win in overtime following a multi-year, 14-game winless stretch in such games, another indication that this year’s squad has significantly improved.

“We have not been very successful in many of these close games in the past, in particular overtime games,” senior forward Kevin Shaw said. “We have a new team this year. Our defense is playing very well, not allowing our opponents to generate many opportunities against us.”

Even though the game was won on McCartney’s free kick, the Lions defense gave McCartney the chance to win it by keeping its fourth shutout of the season, despite giving up a handful of shots on goal that senior goalkeeper Aaron Utman was forced to save early.

“They did get a few chances early on, but as we got our second wind we matched their play and gained some chances of our own,” McCartney said. “Our problem early was that we weren’t getting the ball wide, and as coach (George) Nazario stressed that to us at halftime, we focused on it and had many more opportunities in the second half.”

Improved play in the middle of the park is another product of the sturdy defense, which is giving up just one goal per game this season, compared to 1.74 goals in 2012. Keeping clean sheets keeps pressure off the attack, while allowing the Lions to win some games without putting up big numbers on the scoreboard.

“By limiting the other teams’ chances and goals, this gives us more time to score throughout the game and not have to play being down a goal,” Shaw said. “This also allows us, some games, to only need to score one goal and be able to walk away with a win, which has not been the case in past years. The combination of good defensive play and improved attacking play and finishing has allowed us to win these close games and overtime games as well.”

The Lions’ win over FDU  was less about balanced play and more about scoring early and often, as Shaw netted a first-half hat-trick, while sophomore midfielder Tokio Nakamoto picked up a goal and two assists for a 4-3 victory at the Soccer Complex.

It was Shaw’s second hat-trick of the year, bringing his season total to 11 and raising his points per game total to one of the best in Division III.

“Coach Nazario has moved me to forward this year and that has allowed me to have a lot more scoring opportunities,” Shaw said. “Our whole team has been playing well, so this has allowed us to gain control of the game and then get the ball to our players in good scoring opportunities. From there, we have done a good job of finishing our chances.”

Taking it one game at a time, the Lions are confident in their ability to work together under pressure and close out games.

“I feel that the team as a whole knows that we have a really special opportunity to do really well this year as far as the NCAA tournament,” McCartney said. “Being said, we’ve had the mentality that every single game is just as important as the next and there’s no room for late mistakes or mishaps when under pressure. We’ve done so much better this year working as a whole and being able to push through the run of play and finish the chances that are given to us.”