Men’s soccer team ends season with NCAA Tournament appearance
By Sara Ridgway
The men’s soccer team advanced to the NCAA Tournament after a two week hiatus from the 2016 season.
When the team fell short of reaching the NJAC Playoff Tournament, the season seemed to be over. But little would they know that two weeks after handing in their jerseys, their equipment would be returned to them in order to prepare for NCAA play.
In Sports Information Director Kim DeRitters 10 years at Kean University, a situation of this nature has not happened before: A team that thought their season was over, ended their season, soon to realize they received an at-large bid on national selection day to participate in the NCAA Tournament.
The team opened the NCAA Division III Men’s Soccer Tournament by playing the University of Massachusetts Boston on Saturday Nov. 12. This was the program’s sixteenth appearance in the NCAA Tournament and most recent appearance since 2010.
Interim Head Coach John Velasco described how everything lined up at the end of the season as the “perfect storm.”
“I was aware that we had a chance of making the tournament despite coming short of making the conference playoffs,” Velasco said, “I had a few discussions with my staff and some colleagues. However things became much more difficult with how [the] conference tournament played out.”
Velasco has been a part of teams in the past that not only made it to the NCAA Tournament, but have continued to play on well into the tournament. But with his position at Kean University, this is his first NCAA Tournament appearance as head coach.
“It was definitely a great feeling to receive a bid and get this program back into the NCAA Tournament,” Velasco said. “I know the boys were very excited with this accomplishment.”
As per senior Tim Dutchak, the team was ready for the challenge ahead of them. They knew they would be competing with the best of the best. They were optimistic and maintained focus to do what they could to win.
“Going into the tournament after not playing for two weeks was definitely a struggle,” Dutchak said, “but we trained extremely hard in order to be back into our rhythm of play.”
Velasco’s mindset for going into the NCAA Tournament was to have his players understand how significant this opportunity was for them as individuals and collectively as a program. He wanted them to make the best of this opportunity that they earned.
“The goal was to make sure the boys understood that they should enjoy and not take this experience for granted since none of them have taken part in something like this,” Velasco said, “and it truly takes a different kind of mental discipline to make it far in the tournament.”
For the underclassmen on the team, Velasco wanted them to experience what playing in the NCAA Tournament is all about. He wanted them to understand the kind of work they need to put in, in order to get back to the tournament and push for more each year.
“For me, this is all about cultivating the right kind of culture and standard that we as a program should be working towards,” Velasco said.
Although the game ended in a 3-0 loss, making it to the NCAA Tournament was easily one of the best moment’s of Dutchak’s life.
“It was a surreal feeling because I was under the impression our season was over,” Dutchak said. “Knowing I was able to play one last game with this team in the NCAA Tournament was awesome.”
Dutchak felt that the team played well, but it was evident that they were not prepared for the tournament. With only one week to prepare for the game, there was not enough time to rebuild their team chemistry to the threat is was during the regular season.
“UMass Boston was a very good team,” Dutchak said, “unfortunately they got the best of us but if we hadn’t taken two full weeks off we could have easily had the result in our favor.”
Senior Brad Watkins, whose season ended prematurely due to an injury was grateful for this NCAA Tournament experience, even from the sidelines.
“This was a great opportunity and experience for all the ages of players on our team, as well as our coaching staff,” Watkins said. “It allowed our, and my senior class to go out on a high note, even in a losing effort.”
Watkins explained the high expectations that were set for the team this season. The team was picked as the “dark horse” of the conference, meaning they were the team that posed the biggest chance of being a surprising threat this season. This gave the men a lot to live up to.
“Before our season, however, we had an abrupt coaching change,” Watkins said. “Between injuries, new coaches and a new playing style, we were still able to put together a solid record of 14-6-1.
Dutchak had one last thing to say about the NCAA Tournament opportunity, himself and his teammates experienced.
“Ultimately we were blessed with one last game and we enjoyed every second of the experience,” Dutchak said.
Before reaching NCAA play, the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) announced their all conference awards, which included seven Cougar’s.
Senior Kazari Trought was named to the All-NJAC First Team. Seniors, Robert Barrera, Steven Osores and Kenny Rocha were accompanied by sophomore Mateo Castro Arias as members of the All-NJAC Second Team. Sophomore Nicholas Sica was selected as Honorable Mention.
As per Watkins, this year’s squad had more seniors than the last two seasons combined.
“My senior class and I leave the program hoping we formed and solidified the culture of Kean men’s soccer for many years to come,” Watkins said.
The upperclassmen stepped up as leaders and although faced adversity in the beginning, strived for greatness.
“The older players have done a good job in setting the way for the younger guys and now it’s simply about continuing to push forward and believing that with hard work and trust there’s more to come for this program,” Velasco said.
Player Spotlight: Senior Goalie Brad Watkins
Brad Watkins earned College Sports Information Director (CoSida) Academic All-District 2 First-Team recognition for his performance both athletically and academically. He is the first Cougar in Kean University history to receive the award.
Earning the award that Watkins did not even know existed was a pleasant surprise, as he described being recognized for both athletics and academics can only be positive. But for the senior goalie who was injured mid-season Watkins only had one wish for the remainder of the season.
“Although I am proud to win this award, I would trade it back in a heartbeat in order to have the other half of my senior season back, since it was ended prematurely due to injury,” Watkins said. “I would have been more satisfied in being able to play alongside my brothers for an extra handful of games, respectively.”
Watkins is from Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey. His major is communication studies and he has maintained a 3.38 grade point average.
Since earning this selection, as per the Kean University athletics website, Watkins now moves on to the CoSIDA Academic All-America® Team ballot. Later next month, the first-, second- and third-team All-America honorees will be selected.
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