Photo by Carrie Parker
By Carrie Parker
LaValle Stadium was ripe for celebration Wednesday night, from before the first whistle to the locker room after-party.
The stunning first score of freshman forward Mark Irvine’s career was one of two goals that ended a fast-paced contest against UMBC with a 2-0 victory for the Seawolves and a top-seed ticket to the semifinal on November 9.
“To be honest, one of our goals was to be in the top two. This came like a surprise for us to be number one seed,” said sophomore midfielder Serge Gamwanya, who scored the second goal. “We said we were going to work our asses off, and I guess hard work pays off.”
Consistent hard work had given the team plenty to celebrate long before this final game of their regular season. For the first time since 2012, Stony Brook has entered the NSCAA East Regional rankings, taking No. 10. The Seawolves have also ranked No. 43 in the NCAA Men’s soccer RPI–their highest ranking in program history.
The team also celebrated Senior Day just before the game, honoring the four-year careers of Kofi Ramirez Osei-Tutu, Tavares Thompson and Eduardo Valle as consistently dependable athletes.
Stony Brook will play the winner of Saturday’s Hartford-New Hampshire match next Wednesday, giving the players a few extra days of rest and recovery. “We’re going to enjoy and celebrate – a little,” junior midfielder Thibault Duval said carefully. “We are lucky to get there so we will enjoy tomorrow and then we need to get back to work.”
The UMBC Retrievers had won the last five encounters with the Seawolves since 2012, but their 0-6 record in the America East Conference is a bit puzzling. “We knew UMBC was going to be difficult,” Coach Anatol said. “It’s a little misleading, I think, the fact that they didn’t get any points this year because I think they’re a good team.”
UMBC defense was strong, materializing and flanking Seawolves just as they approached the goal zone. But weighing in on the Seawolves’ opponents, Duval admitted,“They used to be better, honestly.”
But Gamwanya said that the Retrievers moved the ball fast and made it hard to steal. “We like to play against teams like that because we are very organized and win the ball as fast as possible,” he said. “They are a good opponent but I think we made it hard for them.”
The game started like a fencing match of worthy opponents as both sides coolly intercepted one another’s punts and headers. As they sized up each other’s skills, it was unclear what sort of game this would be – but not for long.
After about 15 minutes, the Seawolves had locked in and began creating a lot of chances to score. Junior forward Vince Erdei’s clockwork breakaways had the audience gasping in excitement and moaning in disappointment every few minutes.
The Seawolves’ cohesiveness shone in countless plays: Gamwanya nimbly jumped over an opponent who rolled like a log underfoot and continued running at full speed; Duval demonstrated finesse with a trademark sort of hesitate-and-switch pass; Irvine’s 180 degree pivot-precision-punts initiated several great plays.
With 11 minutes to go in the first half, the audience took another collective breath at goalie Tom McMahon’s agile jump-and-snag save of a header shot by UMBC midfielder Christian Morales.
The audience moaned as Erdei was overtaken yet again. But a few moments later, the groan turned into an ecstatic cheer. Junior defender Danny Espinoza tapped the ball to Duval who paused, allowing Irvine to burst through and drive it straight into the net.
The audience went ballistic, and it’s doubtful whether Irvine could hear fans shouting his name as he was smothered by his teammates. Fifteen minutes later, Gamwanya pocketed his third goal of the season, with another assist by Duval.
Retaking the field after halftime, the Seawolves maintained the same energy and ability, in no way resting in their advantage. Irvine repeatedly proved his hard-earned goal was not just a fluke: He covered the field like lightning, screening opponents to clear the way for teammates, or tearing down the sideline to receive a deadly cross, or intimidating a circle of three Retrievers.
“You don’t really think about it to be honest,” Irvine said, when recalling the moments before he scored. “It’s one of those things that just happens in the moment. We practiced a drill pretty much how I scored most days–it’s great that it actually worked. I’ve been working hard. It payed off.”
Gamwanya also attributed his goal to the effort the team made in practice. “We worked a lot on that on practice,” he said. “The coaches made us do it over and over and over and over until we got it right so when we came to the game, we were prepared.”
Stats-wise, the teams might have seemed evenly matched: Both goalies had three saves each; Stony Brook had 10 shots and 10 fouls while UMBC had just one less of each; both sides had speed and made headers just as important as the footwork.
But it came down to those two early goals. “We had a really good first goal,” Coach Anatol said. “And I was really proud of the second one on a restart because at this time of the year, a lot of games come down to restarts. The guys have been working hard at that.”
For those goals to be possible, a lot of factors came together in the perfect storm–most crucial, perhaps, being the extra push the Seawolves have been making almost around the clock at practice and even before and after games.
Tonight, exhausted but glowing with the aura of triumph, the players agreed, hard work certainly does pay off. But, as they have done all season, they won’t let up. “They’ve worked really hard for this so for them to be able to achieve the fruit of their hard work feels special,” Anatol said. “But we know it’s a step we still have to go a long way to achieve our goals. We’re happy where we are right now but we’ve got to get back and prepare for the next thing that’s ahead of us.”