CLAREMONT, Calif. - The Claremont-Mudd-Scripps men's soccer team had a remarkable regular season, finishing 15-2 overall and in first place in the SCIAC, after ending 4-11-1 and in eighth place last year. A new season now begins, though, as the Stags will try to carry that success into the SCIAC Tournament.
The Stags begin postseason play with a home semifinal against Chapman on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Pritzlaff Field (admission: $10 for adults, $5 for seniors and veterans, free for children under 12 or any faculty, staff or students with their school ID). If they win, they will be right back at Pritzlaff Field again on Saturday night against the winner of the Redlands-Occidental semifinal for the SCIAC Championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament.
CMS last made the NCAA Tournament in 2012, and on paper, this didn't seem in preseason like a team that would threaten to end that mini-drought. In addition to winning only four games last year, there were only two seniors on the 30-man roster, and nobody who had ever made one of the All-SCIAC teams, making this year's squad seem like it was in rebuilding mode around its youthful roster.
However, last year's team was decimated by injuries and never found its confidence. This year's squad jumped out of the gate with shutout after shutout (eight in a row to start the year) to build its confidence back up, and it has had the depth to overcome the inevitable injuries it has faced. The team began the year with no All-SCIAC players on the roster, but now it has six, after a half-dozen Stags were named first-team All-SCIAC
Junior captain Adam Singer has started every game at center back, after missing all of last year with an injury, and is one of the six All-SCIAC first team winners (along with freshman goalie Jacob Mays, sophomore defender William Birchard, senior midfielder Aidan Johnson, sophomore midfielder Nate Huntington and freshman forward William Barton). Singer said he has been impressed with seeing the way this year's team has developed.
"Obviously we didn't have the greatest season (last year)," Singer said, "but I'm just incredibly proud of these guys, with the work we put in over the summer, preseason, and throughout the whole season, and being able to remain consistent. It's absolutely incredible the way all of our hard work has been paying off."
Postseason play brings a new level of pressure, though, as the automatic bid is the only sure way of making the tournament. The Stags are back in the United Soccer Coaches national rankings at No. 25, after climbing as high as No. 17 earlier in the year, and are third in the West Region, but that may not translate into a bid if they are knocked off in the SCIAC Tournament, due to the limited number of at-large bids available for the Division III Tournament. Despite the added stakes, Singer feels that it is important for the Stags to trust the approach that got them here in the first place.
"Around the locker room, we try to keep things the same," he said. "Obviously there's a little nerves in the air, but we try and approach every game the same. It'd just be nice to keep our routine, so if we win this game, winning just becomes another habit, another part of our routine."
The first meeting with Chapman was a 2-1 overtime win for the Stags, who came from behind after giving up their first goal of the season in the second half. CMS had started the year with eight straight shutouts (nine dating back to the regular season finale last year), but finally surrendered a goal off a corner kick midway through the second half after 785 minutes of shutout soccer. Less than two minutes later, sophomore midfielder Luke Scanlan tied it up, and the Stags won it on an overtime own goal off a corner kick to improve to 9-0.
CMS did hit a little bit of a lull after that win, falling 2-0 at home to Occidental in its next contest, and after a 2-0 win over Caltech, dropping a 1-0 road decision to La Verne. Some injuries started to mount, and there was some risk that the early-season success could start to fall by the wayside. Instead, the Stags closed out the year the way they started it, rattling off five shutouts in a row to take the regular season title all to themselves, ending the year with a remarkably low total of four goals allowed (ranking second in the nation).
"It just shows our team's resilience and our ability to bounce back," Singer said. "Obviously it was a test to see how we'd do in the face of adversity, and just the way we bounced back we were able to catch some more wins and close out the season really, really strong. It's just a credit to our guys."
CMS had a week off after the La Verne game and responded by defeating Pomona-Pitzer 2-0 at home. The Stags kept it going with a 2-0 win at Cal Lutheran and a 1-0 overtime win at Whittier on a goal with one second left in overtime from junior Justin Gadalla. With a bid secured, the final week was about seed and home field advantage and the Stags won two games with postseason-type stakes and atmosphere, beating Redlands 1-0 at home and Occidental 1-0 in overtime on the road, giving CMS the right to host any SCIAC Tournament games it plays in, which Singer hopes will be to his team's advantage.
"It's obviously huge, having fans there that are actually cheering for us instead of cheering against us is a big game-changer," he said. "Also we know our field, we know our staff, we know all our fans, all our friends and family are coming out. it's going to be awesome; it's going to be a great atmosphere. We're excited to host."