RETURN OF THE KINGS
- HAMILTON, EAGLES UPEND ELMS FOR FIRST NECC TITLE SINCE 2010
AND LEAGUE-BEST THIRD OVERALL -
|The Eagles men's soccer team celebrates its third NECC tournmament title - the most in the NECC since it began - Sunday afternoon at Leary Field.|
Chicopee, Mass. – Any shadows left behind from the glorious Eagle men's soccer runs of 2009 and 2010 can be safely tucked away. The 2014 squad made sure of that in a most remarkable fashion on Sunday afternoon and staked their claim to be listed among the best programs ever to represent Daniel Webster College.
The second-seeded Eagles used a first half goal from Eusebio Marote and a rocket in the second half from senior Joey Morgan, and then dodged a heart stopping clang off the cross bar in the final moments to stun and upend top-seeded and two-time defending NECC tournament champion Elms 2-1, securing the third conference tournament title for the program and its first in four seasons.
The win catapults the Eagles into their second ever NCAA tournament field, while they become only the second Eagle program to win multiple NECC championships and reach multiple NCAA tournaments.
The NCAA tournament field will be announced early Monday afternoon.
Moreover, the championship gives DWC a NECC-best three overall titles since the tournament began in 2008 and denies the Blazers of becoming the first program to three-peat as tourney champs.
The victory also ends a two year dry run for the College's athletics program. DWC last placed a team in the conference's winner's circle in 2013 with the baseball squad. The soccer squad becomes the sixth program in College history to reach the big dance joining Cross Country (2008), Men's Soccer (2010), Baseball (2012, 2013) and Women's Basketball (2011).
The Eagles also continue their remarkable end-of-season run, having won 11 of their last 12. The squad's 15-5-1 mark easily supersedes the program's two previous best-ever clubs (2009, 2010) which both posted 12-6-1 marks.
For Eagle Head Coach Matt Correia, capping his fourth year behind the bench and fifth overall with the program, Sunday's title was the culmination of a journey that began in 2010 as an assistant coach and put any shadows of those two previous titles that remained away for good.
"It certainly feels different winning as a head coach instead of an assistant," said a beaming Correia Sunday evening back in the confines of Nashua. "I'm not proud for myself by any means. I'm proud for all the guys within our program today. They've been proving to [the staff] - and I think to themselves - all year long that they can beat anybody in this league. Today, we're in a hostile environment against a two-time defending champion in front of a full house. Anytime you can beat a program like that on their home turf is an incredible accomplishment."
There were – as there have been – a number of important contributors for DWC throughout the year and Sunday was no exception. And while players like Marote, Morgan, Ian Hutchinson (who set up Marote's score) and senior captain Brad Hosey among a host of others rose to the occasion, none did more so than net minder Sean Hamilton.
The junior from nearby Brookline stole the show – in particular the late part of the show - on the Leary Field turf finishing with seven saves including some his best for last over a spectacular final 21 minutes.
After giving up a first half goal against a pair of stops, Hamilton stoned the Blazers the rest of the way with five second half saves while also frustrating the green and gold inside the box on three corner attempts and a couple of free kicks with an aggressive attack of the ball at every opportunity.
"Sean stood on his head today," Correia said. "We thought by far he was the best player on the field, especially in those last 21 minutes. We wouldn't have won without him."
Playing (somewhat unfairly) in the shadow of his predecessor - Eagle great Joe Keene who backstopped his teams to a pair of back-to-back titles and rewrote the goalkeeping record book - Hamilton cemented himself among the true greats of Eagles all-time keepers with a season and tournament to remember.
How good was Hamilton down the stretch? Exempting a pair of throw-away late scores to Lesley three weeks ago, Hamilton gave up just three goals in his final seven contests including the final. That streak includes three shutouts giving him six on the year and 14 in his career.
"The key stat that Sean has provided for us hasn't been saves or shutouts," Correia noted. "Instead it's just straight up confidence. He's been steady and reliable. You can't measure that on a stat sheet. And his toughness has been remarkable."
Clinging desperately to a one-goal margin, the Eagles saw Elms throw everything left in their arsenal at the Eagle defensive line and Hamilton over those final 21. With seven minutes left, Blazer talent Connor O'Grady – who had already tied the game in the 16th - ripped a volley that twirled dangerously towards the far post. Hamilton however, stretched wide to knock down the threat.
But the O'Grady play was just the warm up for the final act. Sometimes, as the old saying goes, it's better to be lucky than good. Hamilton and the Eagles got some of that luck in the final seconds when Blazer CJ Dabrowski sent a long 28-yarder from outside the box that sailed high and on target, but clanked off the crossbar.
"A couple of key plays, certainly," Correia said. "Sean played O'Grady's shot well – it was a terrific attempt from a great player. Sean did a great job of reaching out and holding on. The final shot went our way. Sean had a read on it but I'll admit we all held our breath. Still, Sean was everywhere for us. His toughness was huge. He broke his pinky with about seven minutes left on one of those plays and he never flinched."
Hamilton would ultimately turn away seven shots – the most he's turned away in over three weeks. The result (perhaps most fairly) resulted in a well-deserved Most Valuable Player award, making him the first Eagle keeper to earn that post-season honor.
As they did against Lesley to grab important momentum, DWC had struck early, this time in the 9th minute. Hutchinson streaked through the Blazers midfield, then dropped off a pass for Marote, who ripped a shot at Elms junior keeper Nick Pennant. Pennent made the initial stop but the momentum carried the ball into the back of the net. It was 1-0 Eagles.
But Elms settled and the Blazers pulled even as Conor Rieker played a ball up the left sideline, then launched a cross to the front of the net, where O'Grady waited and one-timed a volley to the inside right post.
The second half saw the teams trade a number of chances and as the 70th minute approached still knotted at one, the idea of overtime was creeping into more than just a couple of minds.
With 21:41 remaining on the clock, the Eagles controlled the ball through the Blazers zone, where sophomore forward Richard Eaton gathered the ball and swung a pass to the far side of the field where he found Morgan left alone for just a moment. The senior, who has made his mark setting up goals rather than scoring them, didn't pass this time. Instead the Windham native launching a 35-yard missile towards the far upper corner of the Blazer twine. It was suddenly 2-1, setting off a massive eruption from the near 150 Eagle fans who had traveled to Western Massachusetts.
"It was a pretty remarkable shot," Correia noted. "It was a gutsy shot on top of it. I think that's a senior – a veteran - who in a 1-1 championship game says 'I'm gonna take a risk' and it pays off. It was an incredible moment and incredible shot for a deserving guy."
Hutchinson (who picked up all-tourney honors along with Marote) and Morgan were among the most prominent contributors on the field throughout the season and again in the postseason. Along with setting up Marote, Hutchinson had also scored the clincher in Friday's semifinal win over Lesley. It was Morgan meanwhile who set up both goals in Friday's win, and ultimately gave the Eagles the title in the second.
"Ian has steadily matured as a player and we think he's certainly one of the better players in the league," said Correia. "He initiates offense, he gets us involved. We saw that today. He opened some lanes for us from the outside. He proved he can shoot [against Lesley] and that opens things up for everybody - in today's case Eusebio.
[Elms] committed a couple of defenders to Ian, and 'Seb took advantage. He made a great play on a great shot."
|Eagle all-tournmament members included (L-R)
Eusebio Marote, Ian Hutchinson, Brad Hosey and Sean Hamilton.
For Hutchinson, it was his fifth assist of the year, for Marote and Morgan, only their second goals. But Morgan's specialty has been setting up the strikes, not scoring them, evidence not only in a team-leading nine assists this season, but in moving to within one of the all-time career lead in the process.
"Joey's really been knocking at the door scoring wise for a while," Correia added. "That's why were especially happy for him today."
Not to be lost among the glory bestowed upon the point-getters, Correia was quick to point out that the team defense has been the Eagles hallmark all year anchored by senior captain Brad Hosey, who goes out as the latest Eagle captain to hoist the NECC trophy and was a clear choice for all-tournament honors.
"Brad played terrific today," Correia said. "Our whole team played very well defensively but they feed off him. He has not only been an anchor defensively, he's a true leader. Part of the reason we've been so successful is his leadership. I'd argue he one of the best captains this program has ever had so seeing him hold that trophy was a special moment for us."
As for Correia himself, there's a certain satisfaction that comes with having taken over a program that had won two straight titles, the last coming when he served as the programs' top assistant. This time around, Correia enjoys the spoils on his own as head coach. There aren't any shadows any longer.
"When our staff took over [in 2011] we had a good year but lost in the semis. We knew with that graduating class – with all that talent we lost, we had to recruit twice as hard to rebuild and get back over the hump," Correia said. "The men who took a chance and committed to this program are the ones we're happy for, not me, not the coaches. It's just immense pride."
"I think some of our veterans looked back at those two years (2009 and 2010) and said to themselves 'we want to get our own – we CAN get our own.' And they did. It's a special feeling."
Looking forward to the next step – an NCAA regional, Correia was direct and practical. "Wherever we go, we'll prepare the way we always do. It's just great to be back in the tournament."