LEWISTON – Niagara University’s men’s soccer team is off to the NCAA tournament for the first time ever.
And the Purple Eagles did it the hard way, winning five of their last six games in overtime, including a 1-0 victory in double overtime over Loyola in Poughkeepsie to capture the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title and the automatic bid into the NCAA field of 48.
They will test their skill and their luck at Michigan at 7 p.m. on Thursday in Ann Arbor, Mich. The NCAA pairings, announced Monday night, has Niagara meeting the Wolverines in the first round. The winner will play at Mid-American Conference champion Akron, which received a first-round bye.
Niagara is 13-1-4 overall. The team had its best start ever with a 12-game unbeaten streak before a 1-0 loss at Siena. The Purple Eagles have won their last five games since then.
The key to success for the Purple Eagles has been defense. The team tied the Niagara record with seven shutouts. The defense is anchored by senior defender Rene De Zorzi and senior goalkeeper Brett Petricek.
De Zorzi earned MAAC Defensive Player of the Year while Petricek was the conference’s Goalie of the Year.
Three Niagara players have double-digit point totals for the season, led by Callum Willmott with eight goals and three assists.
“We’re a tough defensive team,” Niagara coach Chase Brooks said. “We’re a tough defense to break and we have different players step up each game. The guys find a way to get the job done and they’ve been consistent all year.”
Michigan is 10-9-1 overall after losing to Michigan State, 2-1, in overtime of the Big Ten Championship game.
Although it’s Niagara’s NCAA debut, the team feels it’s in a position to make some noise on the national level. The Purple Eagles have garnered votes seven times in the NSCAA/Continental Tire National Rankings. For seven straight weeks, they’ve led the North Atlantic regional poll.
And the team is ready to see what might happen come Thursday night.
“Soccer this time of year is usually not pretty,” Brooks said. “You have to work hard. It’s about the team who capitalizes. We’re definitely happy to be here, but the guys know they’re capable of playing with anyone in the country.”