Among the things University of Charleston men’s soccer coach Dan Stratford has enjoyed in this season’s run to the NCAA Division II national semifinals is how much his players have enjoyed this run – and how much they’ve enjoyed experiencing the journey together.
“I think this maybe the most inclusive group we’ve ever had,” Stratford said.
The Golden Eagles hope that spirit of togetherness helps them push past Thursday’s 8 p.m. match with Lynn University at Highmark Stadium in Pittsburgh and get them to their fourth national title match in the last six seasons.
UC (20-2-1) is looking for its second national title in three seasons after winning in 2017.
Stratford said there are plenty of new faces with this group, players who weren’t on the team two seasons ago when the Golden Eagles held aloft their first national championship. Yet newcomers and veterans have merged to once again become one of the most formidable teams in college soccer.
“Collectively, they get on really, really well,” Stratford said. “As a result, the humility of this group, there’s no ego. It doesn’t matter where they were last year or what club they used to play for, there’s zero ego in this group.”
As a case in point, the Golden Eagles’ leading scorer is senior Freddy Tracey, who has 13 goals this season and 32 for his career. He also has come off the bench in nine of the 23 games he has played this season. One of those was UC’s NCAA playoff win over Mercy, where he scored two of the Golden Eagles’ three goals.
What that ego has created is the ability to tailor lineups that exhibit zero drop-off when the substitutes enter the game. And it allows the Charleston players to go full-bore without worrying about running out of energy. They’ll get the rest they need and the on-field production remains strong.
“It’s been massive for us,” Tracey said. “The time you have when you’re on the pitch, you’re allowed to give your everything. They might be short bursts, 20 or 25 minutes, and you know other people are going to come in and do exactly the same.”
Stratford feels he has the deepest team in Division II. That’s what has allowed Charleston to reach this point, to not have conceded a goal in the postseason and to simultanously rank second nationally in scoring 3.57 goals per game and rank first nationally with a 301 goals against average.
“I was joking with them saying it takes me Augus￼t, September and October to convince them our depth is our strength,” Stratford said. “And then you have to play two games in three days against Gannon and Franklin Pierce, and then the penny really drops in terms of how important the depth is within this group.”
Lynn (16-1-2) will present a formidable hurdle on UC’s quest for another national title. Levin Sandmann and Lukas Ostermann lead the Blue Knights’ scoring attack with 10 and nine goals, respectively. Lynn is no slouch defensively, either. Its .872 goals against average ranks 32nd nationally.
As tough of a challenge as Lynn may be, Stratford said UC is up for it. After reaching Division II soccer’s final four in five of the last six seasons, the Golden Eagles feel they’re just playing to the standard set in the program.
“Every year, for as long as I’ve been here, the expectation has been to compete for a national championship,” Stratford said.