Men fall in championship, make NCAAs

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Following a long day of waiting, Macalester men’s soccer received word early Monday morning that the team had earned a berth to the NCAA tournament. After a 1-0 overtime loss to St. John’s University in last Saturday’s MIAC championship, Macalester missed an opportunity to guarantee itself a tournament spot as conference champions. For head coach John Leaney, the notification that the Scots would have a shot at the national title for the first time since 2002 came predawn.

“[My] baby was very good to wake me up at 6:00 a.m. and I saw the news on the internet,” he said. “More than anything I’m pleased for the seniors.”

Coming on the heels of a loss however, this week’s post season nod was marked by a sense of relief rather than triumph for the players.

Some disappointed Mac fans had written off the season as finished after the MIAC championship loss, and while many players believed the team’s record looked strong enough to secure a tournament bid, even they had their doubts.

“When it’s not in your hands it’s very hard to be sure,” midfielder Andrew Wissler ’06 said.

The players finally got the news they had hoped for and although they were not surprised, they were certainly more relaxed than they had been to for the previous 24 hours. “I thought we definitely deserved it,” starting goalie Ryan Palmer ’08 said, adding that with the news, came “a big sigh of relief.”

Fortunately the tournament selection committee agreed with Palmer, but Macalester earned its tournament distinction primarily during the regular season. Last weekend the Scots did not play like a tournament bound team against St. John’s, at least for the game’s first 45 minutes. “I thought we had the worst first half of our season and I told them so at halftime,” Leaney said.

After a rousing locker room speech from their coach, Macalester returned to the field with new life.

Dominating the action for most of the second period, the Scots appeared to put a win within reach as time ran down, despite a poor first half. A header off a free kick found the back of the net and Mac fans exploded off their seats into a torrent of applause–cut short seconds later, however, when the linesman nixed the goal due to a Mac foul.

Time ran out and the game headed to overtime where the Scots again took control, outplaying St. John’s for the first seven minutes of the extended game. Controlling the ball on the offensive end, the Scots pushed up, but a quick change of possession and a long pass found the Johnnies on the counter attack and a thin Mac defense back on its heals. A defensive miscue deep in Macalester’s territory left Palmer alone in a one-on-one with a Johnnie forward who shot and found the back of the net past a diving Palmer.

A game that had lasted over an hour and a half unraveled in a matter of seconds, leaving the Scots and their fans stunned as St. John’s students rushed the field to congratulate their team.

A loss was certainly not the way Mac planned to end their MIAC season, but that disappointment has been overshadowed by news of the team’s upcoming NCAA games. “It was frustrating not to come away with the victory [at MIAC],” Palmer said, “but we’ve got a new life now.”

Mac’s second season, which begins tomorrow, will not bring about any major shifts for the Scots’ strategy or roster, although the team hopes to return offensively potent midfielder Magnus Oppenheimer ’07 to the field and come out with a little more fire than they did against St. John’s.

“We’re not really changing anything, just getting ready for this Saturday,” the team’s co-assist leader, Eddie Powers ’07, said. “We think we can definitely go two, three, four rounds and who knows after that”

The luck of the draw seems to be in favor of Mac doing just that, as the team’s first round opponent will be from a traditionally weak conference this year, Leaney said. At the tournament, Mac will join conference rivals St. John’s, as well as Gustavus Adolphus College. “It’s a testament to us and Gustavus,” Leaney said. “We go out and we play the best teams.”

Mac defeated two of the nation’s top 25 teams early in their season when they recorded 2-1 victories against Wheaton College and Wartburg College. If Mac hopes to advance in the single elimination tournament they will have to continue this previous success against ranked opponents, only now in a pool of the nation’s 57 best teams. The Scots will take on the first of those opponents, North Park College, tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. in River Park, Illinois.