Have you ever heard the adage “competition breeds champions”? Probably not, because I just made it up. But even though it is a phrase I just pulled out of my skull, it seems to apply greatly to the Drexel men’s soccer team in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Because the CAA has grown to be one of the deepest and most competitive soccer conferences in the NCAA, the Dragons had no choice but to rise up and give their rivals some fight after falling to the bottom of the league. I mean, being from West Philly, what else were they supposed to do?
Following two consecutive last-place finishes in 2009 and 2010 and a transition year in 2011, Drexel has now clinched two consecutive regular-season conference championships in the strong CAA. A 2-1 win in a must-win match over conference newcomer College of Charleston put the Dragons on top of the standings once again, which means that the CAA Tournament will be at Vidas Field for the second consecutive season.
Going into the match, Drexel controlled its own fate, as a win over the Cougars would net the team another CAA title. There was no fooling this experienced team; the Dragons knew the stakes and came out firing.
“I don’t think it was anything more than the fact that we knew what this game meant,” head coach Doug Hess commented on the preparedness of the Dragons. “If we win, we play at home in a week, and we have a week off to prepare and rest and recover. [But] when you’ve got a trophy staring you in your face, that’s enough incentive.”
Drexel spat five shots on goal at CofC senior goalkeeper Kees Heemskerk, who had just been named to the National Team of the Week by College Soccer News and Top Drawer Soccer. One of those five shots eluded Heemskerk, which came off the head of senior midfielder Jared Girard.
In the 42nd minute, the Dragons were on the attack. Senior defender Skylar Olson gave the ball out wide right to freshman midfielder Adam Arana deep in the Cougars’ attacking zone. Arana laid a pristine cross right in front of the cage, and Girard made solid contact to direct the ball into the far-left side of the twine.
“Jared has really been pushing in training the last several weeks, scoring goals,” Hess said. “We’ve been using him like he’s been scoring these goals in training. We hoped he would be able to put it together in a game, and there it was, a great goal.”
Just 10 minutes after halftime, Drexel got a much-needed insurance goal after a spectacular individual effort from forward Phil Hagerty. The pink-shoed senior got possession in the box and used every trick in the book to break free of one-on-one coverage with a CofC defender. He got just a sliver of room and put a hard, low ball right in front of the net. Junior midfielder Guido Pena was stationed on the back post to deflect it past Heemskerk for a 2-0 lead in the 55th minute.
It was then defensive mode for the Dragons, who conceded a goal in the 88th minute to junior midfielder Troy Peterson after a scrum in front of the net. Drexel freshman goalkeeper Tyler Afflerbach made four saves on the night out of five shots on goal and allowed the lone Cougars score to cross the goal line by just a few inches.
As the rain came down on Patriots Point Soccer Stadium, the Dragons held on to their one-goal lead after a final push from CofC. The final buzzer sounded, and Drexel rushed to the center of the pitch to embrace as a team that had successfully defended its conference crown.
The importance of winning the regular-season title can’t be undersold. With a poor out-of-conference record of 4-6-1, there’s no way the Dragons are getting into the NCAA Tournament on an at-large bid. Hosting the conference tournament gives them a slight upper hand at getting in the field of 48, but winning it won’t be easy.
“The reality is that we’re in a situation where we have to win. We have to win to continue to advance; we get that,” Hess said after the 2-1 victory. “The good thing is that we get to sit back and watch the game on Saturday and see what happens.”
In their semifinal pairing at Vidas Field, the Dragons will host the winner of the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup between the University of Delaware and Northeastern University. On the other side, the No. 2 University of North Carolina Wilmington will face the winner of the No. 3 vs. No. 6 battle of The College of William & Mary and Hofstra University. Both preliminary matches will be played Nov. 9 at the sites of the higher-seeded teams.
“We know we’re [going to] have a quality opponent in either Delaware or Northeastern; we’re [going to] have our hands full with either of those opponents,” Hess said. “But we got results against both of those teams [earlier this season], so we should have confidence going into that game.”
In last year’s conference tournament on Drexel’s home turf, Northeastern took home the trophy by beating Hofstra in overtime, just days after the Pride stunned Hess’ squad on penalty kicks. By winning, the Huskies became the seventh different program to win the CAA in seven years. That’s parity for you.
This season, the Dragons had the bull’s-eye on their backs, and they did it again, repeating as CAA regular-season champions. Will they be able to follow it up with a conference tournament double-dip? Drexel is hungry to win, and this stellar senior class isn’t ready to lose. Competition brings out the best in this club, and their CAA foes will bring their best to the pitch next weekend at Vidas Field with everything on the line.