UNH men’s soccer blanks Fairfield, 3-0, for program’s first NCAA tourney win

  • The University of New Hampshire’s Otto Sahlen celebrates with Kristian Piippo (12) during the Wildcats’ 3-0 win over Fairfield in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night at Wildcat Stadium. Piippo scored a goal during the UNH triumph. MEGHAN MURPHY / UNH Athletics

Monitor staff
Friday, November 17, 2017

DURHAM – Stopping goals has been the specialty all season. Scoring them, not so much. So after the University of New Hampshire men’s soccer team got two goals from Robin Schmidt in the first half of Thursday’s NCAA tournament first-round game against Fairfield and took a two-goal lead into the break, the UNH locker room bordered on giddy.

“I don’t think we’ve been into halftime with a 2-0 lead all year, so it felt kind of weird,” UNH Coach Marc Hubbard said. “Some of the guys were pretty happy and a couple guys had to calm them down in the locker room a little bit.”

The Wildcats pulled themselves together for the second half and finished off Fairfield with a 3-0 decision. It’s the first NCAA tournament win in school history for UNH (13-3-4), which will travel to No. 15 Dartmouth on Sunday for a second-round match.

“It means a lot, especially for someone like myself who comes from New Hampshire,” said keeper Andrew Pesci, a Windham native. “So it really means a lot to me and the school and everyone in this area to really put UNH on the map and show people that you can come to a great school, get a great education and win a bunch of soccer games and make it to the NCAA tournament and do well.”

New Hampshire came into the game giving up just 0.54 goals per game, the eighth best mark in the country. And the ’Cats lived up to those lofty stats against Fairfield (12-5-3), the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champs who averaged 1.26 goals per game this season.

“I think (Hubbard) has done a good job. He’s got a combination of experienced, mature players with his transfers and his graduate students, and he has some homegrown talent in there,” Fairfield Coach Carl Rees said. “We felt that the two central defenders (graduate student Willis Griffith from Amherst and redshirt freshman Josh Bauer from Bedford), the holding midfield player (New Hampton’s Kyle Brewster) were very solid, and he got penetration in the wide areas from his fullbacks (junior Otto Sahlen from Sweden and graduate student Dante Lamb from South Africa). It’s a well-balanced team.”

Pesci (five saves) is also a graduate student and has plenty of experience with Hubbard, who he played for at Southern New Hampshire University and won a Division II national title with in 2013. The move up to D-I has been a good one for both Hubbard and Pesci, who set the UNH record on Thursday with his 11th shutout of the season.

“It’s a whole team effort to defend, it’s not just me,” Pesci said. “I might get all the shutouts, but I give huge kudos to them because they’re working their tails off day in and day out.”

The Wildcats are used to leaning on that defense for long stretches of time to keep games even, but they jumped out to a lead after just 13 minutes against the Stags. The play started with Meriden’s Jack Doherty whipping a low cross into the box and Fairfield keeper Gordon Botterill coming off his line to snare it. But Botterill had to dive to grab the ball and as he hit the wet turf at Wildcat Stadium it came loose. Schmidt alertly beat a Fairfield defender to the ball and poked it in to give UNH a 1-0 lead.

“By the time Jack was crossing the ball I thought, ‘Okay I should have been at the near post,’ ” said Schmidt, a graduate student from Germany. “But then I saw that the goalie was dropping the ball, so I just happened to be there and I was lucky to finish.”

The ’Cats nearly made it 2-0 in the 24th minute when Antonio Colacci played a through ball that put Doherty one-on-one with the keeper, but Botterill (seven saves) was quick off the line and made himself big to make the save. But there was nothing he could to stop Schmidt’s second goal.

Exeter’s Jacob Gould, one of the subs who gave UNH a spark in the first half, slipped a smart pass into the box to send in Schmidt, who blasted a shot from a tight angle that went into the top of the net and gave UNH a 2-0 lead with just 8.9 seconds left in the first half.

“A great finish,” Hubbard said.

“The second goal, for me, was the killer,” Rees said.

Fairfield adjusted its formation at halftime, a change that led to more possession and a few more chances, but nothing too dangerous. Every time the Stags got close, it seemed like Griffith or Bauer was there with a head or a boot to end the threat.

“There were a couple of moments in the second half where we were over playing a little bit and Fairfield was pressing and picking up some good spots on the counter,” Hubbard said. “But it’s a credit to our back five and (Pesci) for snuffing those out.”

New Hampshire completed the scoring after Doherty made a slick move on the end line to get free and blasted a shot at Botterill that rebounded out to Kristian Piippo. The junior from Norway didn’t hesitate and hammered the ball home from 10 yards out for his first goal of the year and the 3-0 final.

Now the Wildcats have two days to get ready for the second round, which may turn out to be plenty of time. Not only do the ’Cats have a short distance to travel, they also get to face a Dartmouth team they already beat once this season – 4-2 on Oct. 17.