By Canio Marasco
Going into the final day of the MAAC men’s soccer regular season, the Griffs were in position to make the playoffs – however, they needed a win to ensure a spot.
As the end of conference play approached, the Griffs needed to close out the regular season strongly. Their penultimate game was against the Fairfield Stags, a team they were one spot ahead of in the standings. A loss for either team would have meant the end of their playoff aspirations. In a game full of emotion and hard tackles, the Griffs found themselves fighting to stay alive as the first half came to a close – Fairfield dominated possession and had a 13-3 edge in shots.
Knowing their season was on the line, the Griffs came out in the second half with a completely different mentality. They tried to possess the ball and made more of an effort going forward, instead of relying on their strong defense to create quick counter opportunities. This effort was rewarded early in the second half when Melvin Blair manufactured a goal. The sophomore midfielder carried the ball through several defenders in the Stags’ box, ultimately creating a goal-line scramble that ended in the Stags scoring an own goal. With the lead in hand, the Griffs defended and fought off several scoring chances. Their effort was eventually rewarded as the Griffs came away with a vital 1-0 win.
Coach Dermot McGrane after the game told gogriffs.com, “This was not a pretty game to watch, but I am proud of the way our players fought hard to get the win. We get to enjoy it tonight and tomorrow, and then we are back at work Monday and Tuesday to prepare to play Niagara, which is always a tough game.”
A win against the Stags meant the Griffs were fifth in the MAAC going into the final day of the regular season, which saw the Griffs travel to play the Niagara Purple Eagles, a team who had no mathematical chance to make the playoffs. The first half was rather cagey – the Griffs looked timid and the Purple Eagles were playing like they had nothing to lose. Each side produced five shots in the first half, but neither produced a clear scoring chance. In the second half, the flow of play shifted dramatically. The Griffs poured on the offense, knowing that a goal would likely ensure them a spot in the MAAC playoffs. Despite their twenty-three shots, the Griffs were unable to find the back of the net. The game would eventually be forced to overtime, where it ended scoreless.
As the result stood, the Griffs hadn’t been knocked out of the playoff picture because of the tie. Although they hadn’t won and earned a spot in the playoffs outright, they could still hope that other fixtures would fall in their favor.
The Griffs ended conference play with a total of fifteen points (four wins and three ties). The team behind them, the Monmouth Hawks, were able to win their final game of the season against their opponent. This win also gave the Hawks fifteen points (five wins), tying them with the Griffs. The Iona Gales also could have finished the season with fifteen points, if they had beaten their opposition on the final day of the season. The tie-breaker the conference uses meant that the Griffs were assured a playoff spot no matter the results. The Griffs owned the tiebreaker over the Hawks, but didn’t over the Gales. The Griffs officially finished fifth and qualified for a place in the MAAC playoffs.
Coach McGrane, on their game with the Purple Eagles and clinching a playoff spot, told gogriffs.com, “I think our lads had some nerves at the start of the game and Niagara was all over us for the first 25 minutes, but I thought we weathered the storm and settled into our way of play. I thought we controlled play for the rest of the game and we had some very good chances to score. By the time we were heading into overtime, we knew Iona had lost so we could relax a bit and we wanted to make sure that we didn’t concede a goal. I’m especially happy for our seniors that they will get to experience going to the playoffs.”
With their fifth place finish, the Griffs will travel to play the fourth seeded Marist Red Foxes. In their only game this season, the Griffs were defeated by the Red Foxes, 2-1. Their loss to the Red Foxes came in the middle of a three game conference losing streak. At that time, the Griffs were struggling to start games quickly and their scoring woes had returned. In the game against Marist, two issues were very apparent: the Red Foxes scored three minutes into the match and despite the Griffs numerous shot attempts, they couldn’t find a deciding goal in the second half.
Since that match, the Griffs have seemingly transformed as a team. Their scoring difficulties have subsided, but most importantly they’ve been playing with confidence. Since their meeting with the Red Foxes, the Griffs have gone 3-1-2, a testament to their changed mentality.
The match-up will see both team’s strength pitted against the other. The Griffs rely heavily on their defense to win games, and so far, that strategy has worked this season. The Griffs have only allowed 19 goals this season, a staggeringly low total. In comparison, Marist has allowed 24 goals this season. The Red Foxes have a high-powered offense, which has totaled a remarkably high 36 goals. For comparison, the Griffs have found the back of the net only 18 times. This matchup, and ultimately the team who will meet the Quinnipiac Bobcats in the semifinals, will come down to the defense of the Griffs versus the Red Foxes’ offense.