PITTSBURGH — The University of Charleston men’s soccer team is one step away from winning its second NCAA Division II championship in three years.
The Golden Eagles will take on California State, Los Angeles, in the Division II championship game Saturday at 3 p.m after a hard-fought win over Lynn University on Thursday.
UC head coach Dan Stratford and his Golden Eagles were tested in the national semifinal against Lynn, falling behind for the first time in nine matches and surrendering their eighth goal of the season.
True to form, though, UC leaned on its championship experience, kept its composure and relied on a big secret to its success — bringing in reinforcements.
Trailing 1-0 in the 26th minute, Stratford didn’t hesitate to turn to his bench for a spark. At that point in the match, Lynn University had created most of the dangerous chances, as goalkeeper Alvaro Unaura Dean was tested, coming through with making four of his seven saves in the early going.
“That’s one of the most important things we have going for us this season,” Ettore Ballestracci, senior midfielder, said. “The guys out there are giving everything. We’re bringing subs in that are going to be giving everything, and as a team we’re not slowing down.”
Then Ballestracci chuckled.
“It’s our secret.”
To which his coach responded, “Not anymore.”
“Depth is something we pride ourselves on,” Stratford said. “As soon as we’ve been getting on that national stage, and we’ve attracted a lot of players, it creates depth. Don’t get me wrong, it takes about two-thirds of the season to convince everyone. It’s a complete juggling act, and a balancing act to keep everyone happy. Everyone’s bought in.”
Sure enough, Ballestracci and junior forward Gabriel Rodriguez provided a one-two punch off the bench to set up the first goal which changed the momentum of the match. Just a few minutes later, Ploutarchos Alonefti played a ball to his left along the top of the box where he found Christos Charalambous for the go-ahead goal.
“After they scored that goal, we started chasing the game, and they made things really difficult for us,” Lynn coach John Rootes said following the match.
Lynn did have a few chances, most notably, on the very last play of the first half, when senior defender and third team All-American Williams N’Dah’s double header clearances on shots heading into goal preserved the lead.
N’Dah was inspired by his teammates turning the tide of the match 10 minutes earlier.
“I love my team. The bond that we have. It’s amazing,” N’Dah said.”We keep fighting from the first minute, through the last minute.”
Stratford knows that his team’s close bond can help them pull through in times of adversity when playing against the best competition that NCAA Division II has to offer.
“It wasn’t our best soccer. Which you can kind of expect this time of the tournament,” Stratford said. “Considering that we went 1-0 down, and considering that we weren’t playing well at that point in the game, I am very proud that we got through that.”
The Golden Eagles came into the NCAA tournament as the third-seed in the Eastern Region, and were seeded third of the teams at the Final Four, but they’ve come a long way from two early season losses.
“Especially this year. It’s been really special, in terms of how they’ve grown, in terms of how they’ve bonded and how they’ve come together. They really care about each other,” Stratford said. “My talk before the game was don’t do this for me. Don’t do it for yourself. Do it for your friends in the room, for your future best men. Your newfound brothers from all over the world.”
The squad ran through a brief workout at Highmark Stadium in Pittsburgh on Friday to prepare for its opponents from California.
“We’re doing everything we can to get our guys recovered, and get ready for what Cal State can bring, and hopefully have a positive outcome on Saturday as well,” Stratford added.
Cal State LA is the lone unbeaten team in the Division II, and a challenging last hurdle for Charleston in its attempt claim another national championship. It will be a battle for the Golden Eagles, as Cal State was solid from start to finish in a 3-0 victory over University of Indianapolis to reach the final.
The final will be a battle of two very strong defensive sides.
Cal State LA’s defense posted its 15th shutout of the year in the semifinals, lowering its goals against average to 0.35, with a back line anchored by twins Jose and Jorge Orellana. Goalkeeper Alex Brehms has allowed just eight goals all year.
Offensively, Cal State LA is led by five players with six or more goals. Tim Klefisch leads all Golden Eagles with eight goals and secured the win with a late penalty kick goal in the semifinals.
It appears that once again, Charleston’s depth will be put to the test.
“The one thing that I saw from Cal State LA was that they were willing to make changes, and they have a lot of faith in their depth as well,” Stratford said. “We’re looking forward to what should be a great challenge on Saturday.”