Big East men’s soccer tourney kicks into gear

Andrew Whalen

Villanova set off last Saturday to Syracuse on a mission to secure its Big East playoff bid. Having disposed of St. John’s days before, the team had that much less baggage to carry with them. The team knew, however, that overconfidence leading to a loss would nullify their earlier accomplishments.

Coach Sullivan briefed ‘Nova before the game on what they could expect to encounter: Syracuse was a finesse team whose strength was in the midfield. Villanova would counter with a stifling defense and a physical presence in the midfield of their own. Looking back, Sullivan said, “We made it gritty. We worked ’em.”

Villanova almost found itself trailing a minute into the game when keeper Jason Friel faced a point-blank shot. Not only did the seasoned Friel stop it, he caught it nonchalantly and ordered his team forward.

Sullivan said Friel has made a name for himself this year along with defenders Sleece and McNulty. “They give us a chance to win by keeping the opponent out,” he said.

Both teams took chances over the course of the game. Syracuse had the ball in Villanova territory the most. “They made the game,” Sullivan said. In the 80th minute of the match, though, the Wildcats took control and elevated themselves into the playoffs. Charlie Rowan leapt up to volley a Greg Winther pass just where the Orange keeper couldn’t get it. Rowan celebrated his team-leading fifth goal after the game.

Villanova’s 1-0 win was especially painful for ‘Cuse because their playoff hopes now rested on a DePaul loss. A DePaul win against ‘Nova would give DePaul the final playoff berth and pit Villanova against West Virginia at an away game. A Villanova win against DePaul, however, would earn them a home playoff game against their nemesis, the Hoyas.

Last Monday, on a clear blue Indian summer day, Villanova triumphantly ended its regular season against the DePaul Blue Demons. DePaul showed up dressed for the holiday – as their all black uniforms belied their color-coded mascot. Either that, or the Demons were ready to mourn their own season-ending loss.

An overhead sun had dried the field, and the Wildcats were to take advantage of the improved field conditions. Villanova proved it was capable of stringing together consecutive “short-short-long” passes.

The Wildcats’ ball control dampened DePaul’s spirit from the start. Villanova applied constant pressure to the Demons’ end, further weakening their defensive resolve. Sophomore Farris Faukhory put Villanova on the board at the 29-minute mark with a diving header into the goal’s upper 90.

DePaul found a false sense of hope when they tied the game with six minutes left in the half. Villanova’s defensive wall, which has protected them well all year, ended up screening the keeper, preventing him from stopping a routine grounder. The coaches admonished the players for their lethargic response in a clearing situation.

Villanova responded as a team of their caliber should and went on to score two unanswered goals. Billy “Sparkplug” Whiteside scored the game winner and assisted on the insurance goal. The second goal showcased an intense individual effort by Whiteside. Billy blazed down the sideline with a defender draped all over him before breaking free to take his shot. The goalie saved it, but Whiteside’s follow up tackle sent the ball flying to a wide-open Mike DelGuercio. Mike took advantage of the situation and proved once again that if he gets it on goal, it’s as good as in.

Heading into their grudge match/playoff game against Georgetown, Villanova is thankful to be playing in its home environment. Sullivan, however, doesn’t even want to talk about what their successful regular season has got them. Sullivan is thankful for his defense, but knows he needs goals now more than ever. The team will focus on creating space for Brett Stassfurth and Joe Taylor to finish. Sullivan said his leader Stassfurth proves “talent starts in the brains.” Coach calls Joey “Hustle” Taylor the Pete Rose of soccer. Sullivan says both players are capable of stepping up offensively while adhering to playoff-winning defensive-mindedness.