Shots fired left and right. Sprawling saves bolstered spirits. That style of play characterized the first 20 minutes of the Atlantic Sun Conference Men’s Soccer semifinal between No. 1 Campbell and No. 5 Mercer.
However, few matches are won that early in a contest, but they are often won in the last 20 minutes and such was the case on Friday.
Mercer scored twice in an eight minute span late in the match to advance to their first final since 2004. Second-year head coach Brad Ruzzo seemed to relish the closing seconds of the contest as he saw his team pass another important inspection on their way to building a first-class program.
“It certainly was a goal that we had coming into this tournament,” Ruzzo said. “We left her last year with a little bit of a bitter taste, leaving in the first round. I can only credit the players, the upperclassmen in particular. We had a lot of changes from last year to this year and they continue to buy into what we are teaching them. I could not be more proud of those players. Obviously, the freshmen coming in have been such a big part of this. We had seven freshmen start the game today and they don’t really know any better which is a good thing sometimes.”
The Bears seemed to be well on their way to establishing themselves as one of the top programs in the conference, winning three straight matches to open A-Sun play. However, a late-season slide saw Mercer lose six of seven to close out the regular season.
“We started off great in conference and then, just like any other team, we had some key injuries. We made no excuses because we know other teams struggle with that as well,” Ruzzo explained. “We had a tough time fighting through that a little bit and finding a way to win those games. We have some guys back healthy which has made a big difference. It wasn’t like we were playing awful during that stretch, we just weren’t coming up with the results.”
Tournament play gives teams another opportunity to define their season, and Mercer has made the most of the chance. After trouncing UNF 3-0 in a first round match, a sky-high group scored three unanswered goals to become the first fifth-seeded team since 1999 to reach a final.
“Before this game, I said ‘the NCAA is probably in your wildest dreams right now, but let’s keep it there until we get a result’,” Ruzzo commented. Now we got the result and now we can dream. It is one game away. We’ll come as prepared as we possibly can and give it a go,”
The Cinderella story will have another chapter written during Sunday’s final.