Finishing the year on a high note, the men’s soccer team battled for arguably its best result of the season — a 2-0 win over Rowan University — while saying farewell to an influential class of seniors last Wednesday, Oct. 29.
The Lions (7-9-2, 3-6), already eliminated from postseason contention, still managed to leave their mark on the playoff race by stunning the Owls at the Soccer Complex. As a result, it was a feel-good game for the home side, which featured six seniors playing their final minutes for the College.
“It was important for us to end the season with a win over a conference rival in Rowan,” said freshman forward Thomas Hogue, who scored the game-winning goal in the 21st minute. “We wanted to send the seniors off with a victory in their final collegiate game and make sure their last game was an enjoyable one … Keeping Rowan from scoring was an added benefit and a credit to the team’s effort.”
It was an aggressively fought contest, as Rowan was looking for three points in order to qualify for the NJAC playoffs. But the College won the Lions’ share of 50/50 tackles, stayed organized and dropped a few midfielders back to help out the defense as needed, ultimately denying Rowan until the final whistle.
“When an opposing team is playing for their season, emotions are going to show,” senior defender Steve Cukar said. “We knew that if we kept our heads and stuck to our game, we would take care of business, which is exactly what we did.”
The effort was fittingly symbolic of the defensive grit which has defined the Lions in the past few years, including the 2013 squad which went 12-6-2 record en route to the NJAC semi-finals.
Many of those games were won on the back of a defense including Cukar, senior defender Ryan Sullivan and senior goalkeeper Maciej Libucha, mainstays on the backline who made a combined 95 appearances for the College.
“A large part of racking up shutouts comes down to chemistry and communication between center backs and their goalkeeper,” Cukar said. “After playing with one another for four years, we became very comfortable playing with one another and familiar with what type of player each one of us are. With the help of the coaching staff and years of experience playing together, I believe we were able to become a strong defensive unit that had success more often than not.”
Senior midfielder Kevin McCartney was often an influential player for the Lions in midfield, racking up 31 points over the years. Senior midfielder David Delooper made 37 appearances for the College since transferring from New York University in 2012, and senior forward Jason O’Donnell scored four goals this year, including the second against Rowan.
All six seniors played a role in ending the season with a bang rather than a whimper, as it took a team effort to stuff the Owls.
“As you can imagine, it felt great to close out the season and my Lions career on a high note with the shutout,” Cukar said. “Winning is obviously the most important aspect of the game, but holding the other teams to no goals makes it even sweeter, especially when the game is against a conference rival like Rowan.”
The game featured some offensive aptitude, too, particularly when high pressure and hustle from Hogue led to the opening goal in the 21st minute.
“On the first goal, I pressured the defender since he was running back to his own goal to clear the ball, which is where mistakes often happen,” Hogue said. “The defender muffed the clearance, and I was able to pick the ball up, take a touch into space, and have a shot which managed to trickle into the goal — eventually.”
The Lions pieced together a statistically overwhelming performance overall, as they had 22 shots — 10 of which went on frame — and scored a second goal when O’Donnell headed the ball past Rowan’s goalkeeper in the 32nd minute.
“Our team was able to create many scoring chances from playing passes behind Rowan’s defense and having one of our forwards run onto it,” Hogue said. “Once we scored our first two goals, Rowan definitely became more desperate by pushing more players forward as the game progressed. This opened up a lot of space for us on the counter attack once we had the ball and allowed us to get a lot of shots off, either off breakaways of through crosses into the box.”
Rowan furiously fought for a lifeline in the second half, but to no avail: This was the College’s night, a showcase for the Lions when they were at their best.