SPORTS

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November 3, 2006

Fuzzy numbers, Bears in men’s soccer’s playoff path

Rip up those mathematical formulas and put away the calculators. The only definitive thing you need to know about men’s soccer going into the final conference weekend is that the Maroons (10–4–3, 2–2–2 UAA) must win Saturday at Wash U (11–3–2, 3–2–1) in order to put themselves in solid position to reach the postseason.

Out of the running for a UAA title and automatic tournament bid, the Maroons nevertheless find themselves in the driver’s seat to make it anyway. NCAA DIII tournament berths fall into three categories: automatic qualifier (Pool A), independent (Pool B), and at-large (Pool C). The regionally third-ranked Maroons will be going for one of 17 Pool C bids, and as of Wednesday, they would be the first to get one in the Central region. (Both teams ahead of them, Trinity and Dominican, are locks to get A and B bids, respectively.)

While they currently hold their fate in their own hands, the Maroons aren’t a sure bet until they dispose of their UAA rival Saturday. Wash U sits sixth and could potentially leapfrog Chicago in the rankings with a win. Unless the Bears take the UAA title (which would require two other upsets), a victory would put them in direct competition with the Maroons for a Pool C bid.

If a poor result also pushes them below CCIW tournament loser and regionally fourth-ranked North Park, there may only be one more bid for the Maroons to try and pick up. Chicago’s biggest advantage is having Pool C’s fifth-best Regional Point Average (RPA), one they’ve earned by not only playing but also succeeding against the nation’s toughest schedule. Still, it’s a bubble that the team refuses to settle on.

“People shouldn’t be starving for motivation at this point. It’s obviously a huge rivalry in a lot of ways independent of the seasons that we’re both having,” head coach Scott Wiercinski said. “Playing away, playing on a good field, playing against a very good team who has done very well on the season—all of those are inherent motivators, and the fact that reaching the tournament appears to be a reality for both of our teams, that will only add to it and boost what will already be a pretty energetic and intense game.”

Energy and intensity have been keys for Wiercinski and the squad in a season of rebuilding and familiarization for the program, which had to deal with the departure of head coach John O’Connor as well as most of last season’s starting lineup.

After a bumpy preseason, the Maroons got off to a relatively slow start in the conference with a 1–0 loss to Carnegie Mellon at home. On the road, the team fought with pride but couldn’t always bring home a favorable result. Still, the dream of making postseason was kept alive by some strong regional performances—most notably against Beloit and UW–Whitewater. The team took that momentum into last weekend’s doubleheader against NYU and Brandeis, from which they emerged with valuable points and leverage in the regional polls.

If the contentment seen on the faces of the players after the final whistle sounded last Sunday was any indication, confidence is running high in the Maroons’ locker room. That wasn’t always the case, though, and Wiercinski found that building up team spirit was just as important as getting the technique and tactics right.

“The season is so short that it necessarily speeds up the whole process of getting familiar with each other, and so through the course of the season, we were finding out more and more about ourselves and our talent.

“The biggest advantage for me was probably following John O’Connor. The team and the program were very healthy when he left it, so I’m just lucky that I didn’t screw it up. From top to bottom, the talent, the attitude of the players, and all those types of things, were really well kept.”

Although the team still has depth issues, and despite a string of injury-related personnel changes, the team has continued to grow stronger. The new starters and substitutes have slotted into the lineup without missing a beat.

The revamped Maroon lineup will have its hands full against a dangerous Bears attack. Offensively, Wash U’s spark comes from some unorthodox places. Third-year defender Elie Zenner leads the squad with six goals and two assists, while first-year forward John Hengel has come off the bench to notch five goals and four assists. In their last outing, the Bears extended first-place NYU to double overtime period before withering the Violets’ hearts with a golden own goal. The 1–0 victory marked the fifth shutout on the year for first-year goalkeeper John Smelcer.

Call this fixture what you will—a regional rivalry, a grudge match, a brawl—but the fact remains that the Maroons and the Bears will clash on Saturday with everything to play for.