The Niagara University men's soccer program will take on the University of Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at 7 p.m. today, Nov. 15, at the U-M Soccer Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.
For the first time in the 43 year history of the program, the Purple Eagles will make an appearance in the NCAA Tournament as the Purple Eagles will battle the Wolverines for a chance to play in the second round against the fifth-seeded Akron (17-1-2) on Sunday, Nov. 18.
"It's a great feeling seeing the reaction from the guys when our name went up, and that's what it's all about," head coach Chase Brooks said. "It's a great moment for Niagara men's soccer. Michigan is a very good side and the team is coached very well. It's going to be a very tough opponent and we're just excited to play them."
The Wolverines are coming off an appearance in the 2012 Big Ten Tournament finals, dropping the title game 2-1 to the No. 5 seed Michigan State Spartans. Michigan finished the regular season with a 10-9-1 record overall and was 3-2-1 in the Big 10.
"We're definitely happy to be here, but we're in it to win it and that's the bottom line," Brooks added. "We like to make things difficult for ourselves sometimes, but we're the type of team that we'll always find a way to get the job done. I've been to the NCAA tournament with two other schools before so I know what it takes at this level and I'm just excited to help out these boys and see how far they can go."
The Purple Eagles finished the regular season 13-1-4 overall and a 5-1-1 record in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, earning third place in the league standings. NU wrapped up the season on Saturday, defeating the Loyola Greyhounds 1-0 in double overtime in the MAAC Tournament Championship for the program's first ever title, which assured their spot in the national tournament.
After a scoreless 100 minutes of play, NU and Loyola battled into a second overtime for the second time in the team's tournament final history, only this time it was the Purple Eagles that came out the victor. Micah Paulino jump-started the game-winning play as the sophomore dribbled up the right wing and flicked a short pass to Bryan Da Cruz. The senior, who has three game-winning goals on the season thus far, took a shot from 12-yards out that beat Loyola keeper Thurman Van Riper to the near post.
The Purple Eagles started the year with a 12-game unbeaten streak, which was the best start in program history. After earning the victory over Canisius on Oct. 13, NU tied the program-best 12-game unbeaten streak that was accomplished during the 2006 season when the Purple Eagles went 5-0-7 midway through the season.
After suffering their first loss against the Siena Saints, the Purple Eagles responded by reeling off five consecutive victories, including the previous two MAAC tournament wins over Siena and Loyola. After a dropping its only loss of the season to the Saints on Oct. 19, NU picked up an overtime road win over Marist, and then defeated both Fairfield and Iona with 1-0 scores to wrap up the regular season.
The semifinal of the conference tournament brought a much anticipated rematch with No. 2 Siena, but the Purple Eagles were able to come out with the win as rookie Darren Cooper scored his biggest goal for NU to date, netting an overtime game-winner just 15 seconds into extra time to drop the Saints, 2-1.
Coach Brooks has gotten steady play from his entire team this season, as 16 Purple Eagles have secured at least one point this season.
Combined with the play of sophomore Callum Willmott and Da Cruz, NU has a strong offensive attack. The duo has added 13 goals and nine assists. Freshman Darren Cooper has been a threat as of late, securing a trip to the MAAC title game with the overtime winner against Siena.
Even the back line has gotten into the scoring this season. Senior Rene De Zorzi and sophomore Roberto Andersson have combined for six goals and four assists. De Zorzi, the 2012 MAAC Defensive Player of the Year, is having a career season in his senior year, totaling a career-high four goals and four assists for 12 points. Andersson has been vital to the Purple Eagle offense lately as the sophomore scored in the MAAC semifinals against Siena and tallied the game-winner in the 2-1 overtime victory over Marist on Oct. 21.
"We're a very tough defensive team and we're tough to break down," Brooks said. "Every game we have somebody new that steps up and plays the hero. You can't really stop one of our guys because everyone needs to be watched on our team."
As a team, the Purple Eagles have netted 30 goals this season, while holding opponents to 14. Heading into the tournament, NU is scoring 1.67 goals per match and holding the opponent to a 0.78 scoring average.
"We don't have the star players; just the guys that are down in the ditches that go to work every day," Brooks added. "These guys are not afraid to play anybody in the country. We're just excited to have a chance to represent Niagara at the next level."
Niagara is the top-ranked team in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America North Atlantic Poll and received 17 votes in the latest NSCAA/Continental Tire National Rankings, leaving them one spot outside of the Top 25.