What a difference a year makes. Last season, the men’s soccer team was dejected after their hopes of getting into the Atlantic 10 tournament were dashed in a double-overtime loss against University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
This season, however the team entered the tournament at Charlotte strong and determined as one of the favorites to claim the A-10 conference title. After four long days, the Billikens emerged with the A-10 conference crown and a berth to the NCAA tournament.
“Last year was definitely a humbling experience and I think that we all have learned from last year’s mistakes and we are ready to move forward,” sophomore forward Kingsley Bryce said. “This was a great accomplishment, but we still have more work to do.”
The men’s soccer had to face three A-10 opponents who were looking to enhance their own NCAA tournament credentials. The Bills were unfazed by their opponents and marched to claim the title.
The Bills started the A-10 tournament against the La Salle Explorers. The game was slow until the 24th minute when Robbie Kristo got his 10th goal of the season. He was assisted by Jon Roeckle. The Bills also added a second goal, but it was waived due to an offside penalty. The team took a 1-0 lead into halftime.
In the second half, the Bills had many opportunities to score, but were unable to do so. This left the game open for La Salle. In the 79th minute, La Salle’s Jason Plumhoff knocked the ball past the Bills goalkeeper, Nick Shackelford, to equalize the game at 1-1.
However, as in previous games, the Bills responded. In the 86th minute, freshman David Graydon sent the ball up the right side of the field to Alex Sweetin. Sweetin crossed the ball into the box. The ball was met by a sliding Kingsley Bryce who knocked the ball into the back of the net. The Bills reclaimed the lead 2-1 with a few minutes left in regulation.
In the 90th minute, the Bills added a Sweetin-insurance goal to conclude the game with a 3-1 victory for the Bills. The Bills advanced to the semi-finals.
“I thought it was a good game,” Head Coach Mike McGinty said. “I thought we let La Salle hang around too long, but we came back and got the victory.”
The Bills would face Xavier in the A-10 semifinals. Xavier defeated the Bills 3-2 in the regular season at Xavier. In that game, the teams scored a combined five goals in the first half. However, this game only had one goal. The Bills and Xavier were tied at halftime. The game was stalled at zero until the 82nd minute.
Adnan Gabeljic passed the ball to Bryce who headed into the goal for the 1-0 lead. The Bills held onto the lead and claimed the victory to advance to the finals.
“It was a huge morale booster [to beat Xavier],” goalkeeper Nick Shackelford said. “They were back-to-back A-10 champions, and it just proved that we are the team to beat.”
However, the Bills had one team standing in their way between them and an A-10 conference title, Virginia Commonwealth University. VCU had experienced a heartbreaking double-overtime loss against the Bills in October.
“[They] are really similar to us in a lot of ways. The team that does better with their opportunities on goal will win the game,” McGinty said.
However, the Bills suffered a setback as the team’s leading scorer Kristo was sidelined with an injury. Regardless, in the championship game, the Bills did very well with their opportunities.
In the fifth minute, Bryce set the tone for the Bills. David Graydon sent a corner kick into the box where Bryce moved toward the near post and made an athletic play, touching the ball off his right foot while falling. He got the ball just past the near post for the first goal of the game.
In the middle of the first half, VCU had an opportunity to equalize, but Shackelford made a kick save, and on the rebound, VCU shot the ball wide. The game remained in favor of the Bills.
In the 33rd minute, Gabeljic rocketed down three-fourths of the field and touched the ball past the outstretched arms of the VCU keeper. The Bills took the 2-0 lead into halftime.
The Bills added another goal in the 57th minute by midfielder William Hidalgo to make it a 3-0 lead for the Bills as they cruised on their way to the A-10 title.
The Bills received a number of honors at the tournament. McGinty was named A-10 coach of the year. Bryce was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. Also, Bryce, Gabeljic, Kristo and Shackelford were named to the all-championship team.
The victory moved SLU into prime position for a first-round bye in the NCAA tournament.
During Monday’s selection show, the Bills received a No. 8 seed and a first-round bye in the NCAA tournament.
The Bills will play either Fairleigh Dickinson or St. John’s in the second round of the NCAA soccer tournament.
The team makes its 47th NCAA tournament appearance. It is the team’s first appearance in the tournament since 2009. This is McGinty’s first tournament appearance as the head coach of the Billikens.
“It is looking pretty nice,” junior Jon Roeckle said. “It was good to get that eight seed. That way if we win the first game, we will have another home game. However, we have to make sure all of our focus is on the first game.”
The Bills will have at least one more chance to play at Hermann Stadium.
The winner of the St. John’s and Fairleigh Dickinson game will play the Bills at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 18th at Hermann Stadium. Tickets are now on sale for the match; students’ admission is free.