Men’s soccer: The road to the Final Four just got a whole lot shorter
Sophomore Ryan Grandin headed home a pass from senior Marshall Plow with less than two minutes to play in overtime, as the Washington University men’s soccer team defeated Dominican University (IL) in the second round of the NCAA Division III Tournament on Sunday.
Grandin’s game-winner marked the culmination of a long and highly successful weekend of postseason soccer for the Bears. In a thoroughly dominating performance, Wash. U. also defeated Carthage College, 2-1, on Saturday at the four-team regional held at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
With the win, Wash. U. advances to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1997. The team is now set to face Transylvania University next weekend, with the exact time, date, and location set to be announced this morning.
On Sunday, things began somewhat ominously for the Red and Green.
“The first part of the first half, they really took it to us,” noted Onyi Okoroafor, a senior captain.
Dominican employed a unique defensive approach, essentially challenging Wash. U. to beat them by sending longer passes deep into the zone. As a result, it took Wash. U. roughly twenty minutes to adjust to the Stars’ playing style.
“They were man-marking so we did a lot of interchanging between our forwards and once we did that we pretty much controlled the game from there,” said fellow senior captain Elie Zenner.
The Bears’ ability to seamlessly reform their game plan proved beneficial for the remainder of the half, but the squad was unable to put home a goal.
In the second half, Wash. U. began to take control of the game, peppering Dominican keeper Piotr Sliwa with a number of terrific shot attempts and using their superior depth to wear down the Stars.
“The second half was 100 percent us. Our depth and the quality of our play [made it so that they] were gassed by the end of the game,” said Okoroafor.
The Bears had a number of quality scoring opportunities in the latter portion of the match, but could not slip anything past Sliwa in regulation, including three very near-misses at around the 80 minute mark.
On the defensive end, Wash.U’s standout sophomore goalie John Smelcer made three saves and controlled play around the box.
Ultimately, the game went to the first overtime frame where Wash. U. controlled play. Grandin, a sophomore reserve who had struggled in recent appearances and had entered the game with six minutes to go in regulation, had a great chance to score early in overtime, but shagged a Plow pass just over the crossbar.
With a second 10-minute overtime looming in the foreground and the potential for an ever-dreaded penalty kick session on the horizon after that, Plow took a long pass down the sideline from freshman midfielder Nick Wilbar.
The senior speedster zipped past three defenders before sending a long and accurate crossing pass to the far side of the net, where Grandin was waiting to provide the heroics.
“It was a good ball from Nick Wilbar. I was able to get by the first guy and the second guy overcommitted, so I was able to cut it back and still serve it in with my right foot,” said a modest Plow.
“I thought the defender was going to get it and when I realized it was going over his head, I tried to hit it away from the goalie and towards the goal and, lucky, enough it went in,” said a similarly unassuming Grandin. “It was definitely the biggest goal I’ve ever scored in my life. It was incredible because I’d been struggling with my own play and it was nice to give something back to the team.”
The score not surprisingly prompted unadulterated euphoria amongst the Bears and the small traveling contingent who made the more than five hour trip to support the team in Wisconsin.
Okoroafor described the game’s concluding moments almost mythically.
“Marshall found a magical burst of speed and basically gunned by two dudes and got this cross off that got over the goalie to the far post and Grandin headed the ball down, and it bounced on the goal line and bounced over their defender’s thighs and then went into the goal. It was outrageous, 100 percent elation. “It’s without a doubt the biggest win I’ve had since being here.”
As thrilling and important a win as Sunday’s was, the Bears will have to quickly regroup, as their portion of the Sweet 16 could feature a rematch with undefeated and national number one, Trinity College (TX). Wash. U., which now stands at 15-4-2 on the season, was defeated, 1-0, by the Tigers in San Antonio earlier this season.
To get a crack at Trinity, the Bears will first have to defeat a tough Transylvania team who won their first two games in penalty kicks to advance. So, while the team is enjoying the moment, they are well aware of what is ahead of them if they are to win their next two matches and reach the Final Four for the first time in school history.
“We’re not content but it’s an incredible accomplishment. We feel incredible. Finding an identity as a tournament team means the world to us. We feel awesome about it but we don’t want to stop now. I still think were capable of going farther,” commented Zenner.
Okoroafor echoed those sentiments, noting that the Bears are now only two wins away from getting to the Final Four which is to be held at Disney’s Wide World of Sports two weekends from now.
“It was exactly what you want out of your of your senior year, a chance to go all the way,” said Okoroafor
For Grandin, the game-winner was more about continuing what has been a special journey, particularly for the team’s six seniors who, with this weekend’s two victories, set a school record for single-season wins with 15.
“We have a lot of seniors on our team and everyone of the underclassmen doesn’t want any of the games to be their last game,” said Grandin, “unless it’s the finals.”
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