By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
It was just two weeks ago that the Salisbury University men’s soccer team rode home from their match at Washington College, a tight double-overtime defeat 3-2 at the hands of the Shoremen.
That loss on Sept. 13 was their second overtime loss of the season and dropped SU to a 1-5 opening record. The team kept grinding though. Some new tactical changes in the making from head coach Alex Hargrove and the team was ready to write a second chapter in the 2017 season.
The second chapter starts with a four-game win streak now. 10 goals, one goal allowed and three matches later, it was a different SU squad in the Sea Gull Soccer Stadium on Wednesday.
After three straight wins including at conference-foe Southern Virginia, Salisbury came back home for their final non-conference match of the season against the Catholic University of America Cardinals.
In search of the fourth-straight victory, the Sea Gulls faced a tough opponent in Catholic, a team also searching for a 2017 revival. The ‘regional rivalry’ has also provided its own fireworks the last few seasons, including an overtime win for Catholic in 2016.
The 2017 edition of the match-up provided much of the same drama. For two teams that struggled to score for a majority of the season, each team got on the scoreboard quickly.
With three shots and most of the possession in the first few minutes, SU sophomore midfielder Ryan Spadin drove down the right flank and delivered a cross across the frame of goal. Flying in at the right moment was junior forward Nick Njuki, connecting on his second goal of the season.
“Obviously without that service, there would be no way of me scoring. That’s two in two games. There’s a lot of pressure on me, being that I definitely am the oldest on the team, so I have that leadership aspect of my game that I need to improve on,” Njuki said.
“Scoring two goals definitely helps me to try to be that leader the team needs.”
The Sea Gulls were off and rolling early on with a clear chemistry on the ball and in their generally new formation. However, Catholic (2-4-4, 0-0-1) had different thoughts.
After not scoring in their previous three matches, CUA junior midfielder Tyler Martin distributed the ball into the left side of the box to Andrew Laurenzano, who curled the ball into the top-right corner of the net, bypassing SU junior goalkeeper Trevor Brookhart.
The 15th minute goal was on Catholic’s first shot of the match and silenced the dominating pressure and possession SU had in the first few minutes. The rest of the first half consisted of even play.
However, the Sea Gulls gained a majority of the chances with five corner kicks and nine shots compared to Catholic’s only four shots. In the second half, an even battle continued with neither team really finding an edge.
The second half was mostly dominated by excellent goalkeeping from both Brookhart and CUA senior goalkeeper Zachery Tashjy, with both delivering game-saving plays in the box. Each keeper finished with five saves on the day by the game’s end.
“I’m lucky [those shots] didn’t go to the corners. We actually just work on that in practice, going across the box and just trying to get a hand on it,” Brookhart said.
With Tropical Storm Maria off the coast, the two goalkeepers also had to deal with windy conditions, blowing from the north to south in the stadium. This weather brought interesting tactics into play, with goal kicks and passes flying further and cutting shorter than usual.
“When we have [the wind] at our backs, play quick and play forward. When you’re going into it, keep it on the ground and try to play a little bit more side-to-side,” Hargrove said.
During the second half, Catholic made things much closer, trimming SU’s shot lead. By game’s end, the Cardinals took 13 shots, while Salisbury finished with 16 shots and a game-high 10 corner kicks.
Neither team found a breakthrough moment in regulation, forcing overtime. For Catholic, overtime had become too memorable of a tale after entering the extra period in their previous three contests, finishing with an 0-1-4 record in overtime contests.
Each team received chances in the first period of overtime, but the real action came into play during the second and final period of overtime.
“We just needed to make sure to keep the ball out of our net. We knew chances were going to come to the attacking players we had in the match. Somebody was going to get a good opportunity. Dylan Parks did a great job to win us a corner, and we made it count in the end,” Hargrove said.
With tired legs plaguing both sides, SU freshman forward Dylan Parks drove down the right flank on a transition attack with just about four minutes remaining. He drew a corner kick opportunity, forcing the Catholic defender to knock the ball out.
SU senior midfielder Matt Zimmerman headed for the corner flag and whipped the ball across the frame of goal. With Tashjy sticking to his line and a missed man-mark, SU sophomore defender Alex Eiben was left open. On a leap into the air, Eiben connected on the header to end the game, winning it for SU 2-1.
“The keeper was going out, so I tried to go back post on the play. He was going up for it, so I didn’t think I was going to get it. It just barely sailed over his hands. It was just flowing there, wide-open shot on goal. So I headed it down and stayed composed,” Eiben said after scoring his first career SU goal.
The story was fitting for a team that turned their season around. With senior center back Mike Kramer out with an injury in overtime, the defense switched from their new three-man back line to their old four-man back line formation, moving Eiben from center back up to defensive midfielder.
One chance and he took it. It is something that Eiben has done all season, starting in all games after making only one appearance as a freshman last season.
Within the new tactical formation, Hargrove points out another player that has stood out: Spadin, who has two goals and an assist in nine starts this season.
“Ryan Spadin was all over the place just creating havoc. It was just a fantastic performance from him,” Hargrove said.
The win isn’t only the mark of a four-game win streak, but also it sends the Sea Gulls back to .500 on the season. They will enter the remainder of Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) play at 5-5, two wins short of their 2016 total.
“Being new to this program, [this success] definitely makes me more invested in it. It makes me want to help the team go even further with our winning streak. This is a special group of guys. We have a great goalkeeper. We have great defensive players. We have good offensive players,” Njuki said.
Salisbury’s hope is that this win streak will garner momentum for the rest of the conference slate. Having only allowed two goals and scored 12 goals over this winning stretch, SU has hit a high-point at least in 2017. The team is hungry to see the success trickle into a stronger conference campaign than 2016 when Salisbury missed the conference playoffs.
“As long as we can continue to gel and put things together, I think we can continue the run that we’re on,” Njuki said.
Next up: the Sea Gulls (5-5, 1-0 CAC) will look to extend their win streak to five games when they visit the University of Mary Washington (6-2-1, 1-0 CAC) for their second CAC match of 2017. Last season the Eagles defeated Salisbury 1-0 in Sea Gull Stadium.