UNH men’s soccer makes first trip to 2nd round of NCAA tourney Sunday at Dartmouth

  • The University of New Hampshire’s Willis Griffith (4), Kristian Piippo (12), Otto Sahlen (3) and Robin Schmidt (13) celebrate on Thursday during the Wildcats’ 3-0 win over Fairfield University in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Durham. MEGHAN MURPHY / UNH Athletics

Monitor staff
Sunday, November 19, 2017

In the literal sense, the University of New Hampshire men’s soccer team doesn’t have to travel far for Sunday’s second-round NCAA tournament game in Hanover against No. 15 Dartmouth. Figuratively speaking, the Wildcats are going further than they’ve ever been.

UNH (13-3-4) made just its second appearance in the NCAA tourney on Thursday night when it hosted Fairfield. New Hampshire’s first trip to the big soccer dance came in 1994 when it traveled to Providence, R.I., to face Brown, so Thursday’s match against Fairfield was the first home NCAA tournament game for the Wildcats. They doubled up on that history with their first win, 3-0, which advanced them to Sunday’s game against Dartmouth and their first trip in the tournament’s second round

“It’s exactly what we set out to do here,” said Marc Hubbard, who took over as UNH’s head coach in 2015 with the clear intention of taking the program to new heights.

As the postgame press conference was wrapping up on Thursday night in Durham, Fairfield Coach Carl Rees was asked what he thought about the UNH team in general and how it might fare moving forward in the tournament. Rees, who has been at Fairfield for 22 seasons and taken the Stags to the NCAA tournament five times, was full of praise for the ’Cats.

“I watched about six of their games prior to this, so I know them,” Rees said. “They’re a mature team, good decision making on the ball, possession oriented. … It helps to have graduate students in there who have been on national championship winning teams or played at a high level elsewhere. I think they try to play the game the right way. The sportsmanship was first class. I think it’s a well-organized group that’s enjoying their first tournament win and credit to them, really. I thought they were sharper and more effective in attack than we were, and they were resolute defensively, so that’s (a good) combination.”

There were four graduate students in UNH’s starting lineup against Fairfield – keeper Andrew Pesci, forward Robin Schmidt, center back Willis Griffith and right back Dante Lamb. Pesci, who set a school record with his 11th shutout of the season against Fairfield, was on the 2013 Southern New Hampshire University team coached by Hubbard that won the D-II national championship. Schmidt scored the first two goals against Fairfield, and he also scored twice in New Hampshire’s 4-2 win against Dartmouth on Oct. 17.

The Big Green (12-3-1) scored first in the regular-season meeting at Wildcat Stadium, and took a 1-0 lead into halftime. Schmidt equalized in just the second minute of the second half after Dartmouth keeper Christopher Palacios bobbled a ball inside the 18-yard box and Schmidt was there to snare the loose ball and send it into the empty net, which is just how he scored the first goal against Fairfield on Thursday.

Schmidt gave UNH a 2-1 lead in the 66th minute against the Big Green when he headed home a cross from Meriden’s Jack Doherty, who scored one himself against Dartmouth to help the Wildcats to their highest goal total of the season.

It’s probably overly optimistic to expect UNH, which averages 1.55 goals per game, to score four more goals on Sunday. Dartmouth has allowed just 0.75 goals per game this season and the Big Green will be playing on their home turf for this rematch.

But it also might be overly optimistic to expect Dartmouth to score two goals against New Hampshire for a second time this season. The Wildcats are ranked No. 7 in the country in goals against, allowing only 0.52 per game. Pesci has the same goals-against average (he’s played every minute of the season in New Hampshire’s net) and is No. 9 in the individual goals-against average rankings. His 11 shutouts are tied for third best in the nation. The graduate student from Windham is an excellent keeper, but UNH’s stingy defense comes from a team-wide effort.

“It starts up front defensively, I think our forwards work really hard, and all the way back to our keeper. Collective team defending, it’s been a staple of ours this whole year,” Hubbard said.

While UNH will be in new figurative territory on Sunday, Dartmouth will not. The Big Green are in the NCAA tournament for a fourth straight year, although Dartmouth has not advanced past the second round in any of those appearances. Last year the Big Green won a first-round home game against St. Francis (Brooklyn), 1-0 in overtime, before losing at No. 8 Syracuse, 3-0, in the second round.

Dartmouth won the regular-season Ivy League title and earned a slew of postseason league honors. Chad Riley was named the Ivy Coach of the Year, senior Wyatt Omsberg was the Defensive Player of the Year and freshman midfielder Dawson McCartney was the Rookie of the Year. Omsberg, midfielder Matt Danilack, midfielder Tyler Dowse, midfielder Justin Donawa and forward Eduvie Ikoba were all First Team All-Ivy selections.

“I think it’s a good draw so we can stay close and local and it’s familiar, but they’re a hard team. It’s a grass field. If we’re careless with the ball, they’ll punish us,” Hubbard said. “It’s a good test and a really good story for New Hampshire to have two teams in it at this point.”

Corner kicks

UNH has a definite Granite State flavor with 10 New Hampshire natives on the roster. The Wildcats defense is all about the 603 with Windham’s Pesci in goal, Amherst’s Griffith and Bedford’s Josh Bauer in the two center back positions and New Hampton’s Kyle Brewster as the holding midfielder.

Two Concord High graduates are also on the UNH roster – freshman forward/midfielder Chris Pinkham and sophomore keeper Dylan Thomson. Pinkham suffered an ankle injury in the preseason and has not played at all in the regular season. Thomson, who led the Crimson Tide to the 2015 Division I NHIAA state title, has also been stuck to the bench with Pesci in front of him.

Dartmouth does not have any New Hampshire players on its roster.

The winner of this match will advance to the Round of 16 and face the winner of another Sunday game between No. 2 Indiana and Old Dominion.

The game will broadcast live, and for free, at ivyleaguenetwork.com.