Merrimack No. 1 Moment: Men’s Soccer’s First-Ever NCAA Berth
- Updated: July 13, 2012
The term ‘history’ can often be loaded, and carries with it subjectivity by those who use it, especially in the sports realm.
Surely, when a team or program claims an accomplishment to be ‘historic’, on the surface, they use the term to describe something that has never been done before. But that often is not the case, usually referring to an accomplishment that is unique to the history of the team.
But in the case of the Merrimack men’s soccer team, which had played 42 previous seasons prior to the fall of 2012, and 30 of those of which were guided by head coach Tony Martone, there was no debating the simple fact that in all of those prior years, no Warrior squad had ever qualified for, or advanced in the NCAA Tournament.
Pegged to finish sixth in the Northeast-10 Conference according to the Preseason Coaches Poll despite returning a plethora of starters for a team qualified for the postseason in 2011, at first glimpse, coaches from around the conference believed that drought would continue for the Warriors in the fall of 2012,
How very wrong they were.
On the shoulders of a loaded, nine-member senior class, an array of freshmen and underclassmen who played well beyond their years, and arguably the best single-season performance from a goalkeeper in the history of Merrimack men’s soccer, the Warriors shocked not only the conference, but the nation last fall, using stifling defense and a few dramatic victories to tear through their regular season slate with a 12-2-2 record, bolstering its resume for the NCAA Tournament heading into the postseason.
That, however, was only the beginning, as the Warriors posted back-to-back victories in the Northeast-10 Championships to earn a spot in the league finals, where they ultimately dropped a one-goal decision. Still, the rest of the region had taken notice, and for its efforts, and after 42 long seasons, Merrimack finally heard its named called on Selection Sunday, earning an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.
Because of the magnitude of the men’s soccer team’s accomplishment and the history that it played against all season long to finally crack the NCAA Tournament field, the Warriors’ advancement into the Big Dance has been voted the top moment of the 2012-13 academic year.
To properly retell the Warriors’ heroics, one must skip back to early September.
After dropping a tough, 2-1 decision to a nationally ranked Southern New Hampshire squad at home, Merrimack fell to an even 2-2-1 on the season, but had lost both of its first two conference games by one-goal margins.
With a challenging road ahead, and plenty of question marks on the pitch – from a rookie netminder between the pipes, to injuries to key players – it would have not been far-fetched for the Warriors to stumble through the coming weeks. And with a loaded and competitive in East Region that Merrimack competes in, a team’s chance at an NCAA Tournament at-large bid could be broken by one or two losses.
Knowing all that, Merrimack promptly embarked on a historic, 13-game unbeaten streak, one that included separate winning streaks of seven games and five games, respectively, that helped the Navy and Gold tear through the remainder of the regular season, capture their fourth-ever NE-10 regular season conference title on the last game of the year, and post back-to-back wins in the conference tournament to earn a spot in the league finals.
There, Merrimack once again squared off against a Southern New Hampshire squad that it had lost to nearly two months to the date of its last loss. Trailing by a goal at the half, the Warriors quickly tied the contest at a goal apiece early in the second stanza, but the Penmen responded moments later, and that one-goal deficit would hold the rest of the way, as SNHU lay claim to the conference crown with a 2-1 decision over Merrimack.
Even then, after a heartbreaking loss in the conference finals, the Warriors had already accomplished more than any Merrimack squad had done in over a decade on campus. But they would be given the opportunity to do even more a day later, when the announcement that the team was anxiously awaiting was finally made.
After 42 years of existence, Merrimack College’s name appeared in the midst of the NCAA Division II Men’s Soccer Selection Show. The Warriors, who stood at 14-3-2 through the conclusion of the NE-10 Championship, earned their first-ever berth in the Big Dance and were slotted as the No. 3 seed in the six-team East Regional Field.
With already a form of history achieved, Merrimack would follow that up with arguably the most meaningful moment of the 2012-13 academic year in the tournament’s first round.
Playing against a Franklin Pierce squad that it had already beaten twice – once in the regular season on the road, once at home in the NE-10 Semifinals – the Warriors squared off against the Ravens in the NCAA Tournament First Round hosted by Southern New Hampshire.
For long stretches of that contest, it appeared as if Merrimack’s tournament run would be cut short after that opening round. Franklin Pierce dominated most of regulation, holding a 14-0 advantage in shots on goal through the first 80 minutes of play.
Still, the 16th-ranked Warriors bent but did not break thanks to the efforts of Northeast-10 Goalkeeper of the Year Jose Silva, who eventually finished with seven stops.
Merrimack survived that onslaught by the Ravens over the first 84:30 of regulation, and despite being outshot by a 14-0 margin up until that point, the Warriors’ patience and defensive prowess finally paid off, as senior captain Alejandro Fuchs headed home the game’s only goal on a corner kick in the 85thminute to lift the Warriors to a stunning 1-0 victory.
Adding more history to the mantle that was the 2012 season, Merrimack’s first-ever NCAA Tournament victory in their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance pushed them to the Second Round, where they would face a Southern New Hampshire team that stood between them and the East Regional Championship.
Playing on the Penmen’s home turf, the Warriors battled valiantly through a scoreless first half, but after receiving a rec card early in the second frame, the visitors were forced to play a man down the rest of the way.
Despite the odds against them, Merrimack continued to battle and nearly pushed the go-ahead marker on the board on several occasions. But with 10 minutes to go, SNHU tallied the game’s only strike on a penalty kick, putting an end to the Warriors’ magical season with a defeat in the Round of 32.
Even with the heartbreaking loss, Merrimack ended the 2012 season with plenty of actual history – nothing subjective about it. The Warriors’ run to their first-ever NCAA Tournament was highlighted by one of the country’s top defensive units, as the Navy and Gold set a program record with 12 goals allowed all season – the fewest in single-season history.
All of that culminated in Martone’s much-deserved coaching recognition. The longtime Warrior bench boss was named the league’s top coach, as well as the NSCAA East Region Coach of the Year.
It was just another honor in a season full of them, and another in the long coaching career of Martone, who will look to guide a young squad back to the Big Dance in the fall of 2013.
And when the Warriors take to the pitch again, the only question they’ll have to answer is how to top the history that was made in 2012.
This is the 10th and final installment of Merrimack Athletics Top Moments of 2012-13.
10. Women’s Crew Wins NE-10 Cup V4 Title
9. Football’s Historic Victory Vaults Voegeli to NFL
8. Men’s Hockey Team’s Dramatic OT Win over BC
7. Men’s Lacrosse Stuns Top-Ranked Le Moyne
6. Women’s Golf Claims First-Ever ECAC Title
5. Women’s Basketball’s Postseason Run to NE-10 Semis
4. Men’s Tennis Repeats as NE-10 Champions
3. Baseball Caps Historic Season with Run to NE-10 Finals
2. Field Hockey Returns to NCAA Final Four
1. Men’s Soccer’s First-Ever NCAA Tournament Appearance, Victory