University of New Hampshire men’s soccer team in good form as it prepares for Wednesday’s conference semifinal at UMass-Lowell

  • UNH’s Jacob Gould (left), of Exeter, and Dante Lamb (11) celebrate Gould’s goal in UNH’s 1-0 win over Stony Brook in the America East quarterfinals on Saturday in Durham. JOEY WALKER / UNH Athletics

  • The No. 20 UNH men’s soccer team will face UMass-Lowell in the America East semifinals on Wednesday in Lowell, Mass. JOEY WALKER / UNH Athletics

  • Windham’s Andrew Pesci earned his 10th shutout of the season for the Wildcats in UNH’s 1-0 win over Stony Brook in the America East quarterfinals on Saturday. JOEY WALKER / UNH Athletics

  • UNH senior Will Rasid, a native of Wilbraham, Mass., dribbles by Stony Brook’s Steven Ghitis during the America East quarterfinals on Saturday in Durham. BELOW: Windham’s Andrew Pesci earned his 10th shutout of the season for the Wildcats in their 1-0 win over Stony Brook. JOEY WALKER photos / UNH Athletics

Monitor staff
Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The cliche, and correct, saying goes that you want to be playing your best at the end of the season. That seems to be happening for the University of New Hampshire men’s soccer team as it heads into Wednesday’s America East semifinals.

The No. 20 Wildcats (12-2-4) have gone 7-1-2 since the start of October, including Saturday’s 1-0 AE quarterfinal win against Stony Brook. That one loss, however, was a 1-0 double overtime decision on Oct. 28 at UMass-Lowell, and that’s the team UNH will be facing in Wednesday’s 7 p.m. semifinal at Cushing Field in Lowell.

“It was a good soccer game, very tactical,” UNH Coach Marc Hubbard said of the regular-season match against the River Hawks (9-6-1). “So I think it’s going to be another tight game that’s going to come down to a really great individual action or goal, or capitalizing on a mistake or a restart, so we need to be really tuned in. It’s not an easy place to win.”

Lowell, which is the second seed in the tournament, is 6-0-1 at home this year. The Wildcats, the tourney’s third seed, are 3-2-1 on the road. The winner will advance to Sunday’s final against the winner of the No. 4 Albany at No. 1 Vermont semifinal. The highest remaining seed will host the final.

The tournament champion gets an automatic bid to the national 48-team NCAA tournament. The ’Cats would love the auto bid, but they feel like they’ve done enough this season to get an invite to the big dance no matter what happens in the next two matches.

“In terms of our RPI (No. 17 in the nation) we should be locked in for an at-large bid, which is something that hasn’t been done (at UNH) since 1994,” Hubbard said. “So that’s really been the goal, to get into that national tournament, and I think we’ve set ourselves up with our body of work to get there regardless of results, but obviously we want to win the trophy.”

During that Oct. 28 game at Lowell, UNH held a 16-10 advantage in shots and didn’t allow the River Hawks (No. 47 in the RPI rankings) a single shot on net in the second half of regulation. The game-winner didn’t come until the 107th minute when Ivan Blaskic scored off a rebound from a Chase Reichenberg shot.

“It was four or five compounding mistakes in a row, so we’ve just got to clean that up and make sure we don’t give them as many chances or direct opportunities,” Hubbard said.

The Wildcats have been pretty good at that all year. They’ve given up just nine goals this season, a 0.469 goals against per game average. That’s the best mark in America East and the fourth best in all of Division I. 

Keeper Andrew Pesci, of Windham, deserves plenty of credit for the stingy defense. He ranks third in the nation with 10 shutouts and is fifth in goals against with a 0.47 average. But he’s gotten plenty of help from the men in front of him, starting with the back line of Otto Sahlen, Willis Giffith, Josh Bauer and Dante Lamb, and holding midfielder Kyle Brewster.

Sahlen, a junior left back from Sweden, was named to the All-America East First Team. Griffith, a graduate student center-back from Amherst, was named to the All-America East Second Team, and Bauer, a freshman right back from Bedford, was named to the conference’s All-Rookie Team. Brewster, a sophomore from New Hampton, adds to the Granite State flavor of UNH’s defense.

“I think the best form of defense is when you can keep the ball, and this back four has been pretty good at keeping the ball and starting our attack, but they’ve also done a great job of sort of weathering storms,” Hubbard said. “But it’s not just them. It’s a collective effort in terms of defense. It starts up front with our forwards, and Andrew Pesci in net has been a good, calming influence back there giving us a lot of consistency. It’s a total team effort.”

New Hampshire’s offense hasn’t been quite as good as its defense, but it has been far from bad. The ’Cats are third in America East in goals per game with a 1.50 average, behind Albany (1.72) and Vermont (1.61), and they rank second in both shots (252) and corner kicks (110).

UNH graduate student Robin Schmidt was named the America East Striker of the Year and ranks second in the conference in goals per game (0.50) and third in points per game (1.08). Schmidt had two game-winning goals for UNH this year as did Griffith and freshman midfielder Linus Fallberg, who was an All-America East First Team selection along with Schmidt and Sahlen.

“We’re having a lot of possession and we’re creating some pretty good chances, we’re just not finishing consistently,” Hubbard said. “It’s just frustrating sometimes when you go that long without scoring, and it gives the other team a little bit of confidence. So it would be nice to get one early (on Wednesday).”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341, tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)