WEST LONG BRANCH – It’s often the journey that makes the final destination that much sweeter.
Take the Monmouth men’s soccer team, bound for Greensboro, North Carolina and a showdown with Bowling Green in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament next Thursday.
To understand the exhilaration of Saturday’s dramatic 1-0 victory at Quinnipiac in the MAAC Tournament championship game, you have to go back to the final game of the 2018 season, a 6-0 loss at Quinnipiac that served as rock bottom for a program that went to the NCAAs five times between 2006-13.
“We finished 0-10 in conference, and that was the low point for the team, the program and me personally,” said redshirt junior goalkeeper Sean Murray. “So to come full circle, and to be able to turn the team around, begin having success and to finish it off on that field, where our low point came, was really a good moment.”
Return to relevance
The return to relevance has been stunningly swift for the Hawks, down 3-1 at halftime at Niagara in the final game of the regular season, needing a win just got get into the conference tournament.
But Julian Gomez, the sophomore from St. Benedict’s who scored the game-winner at Quinnipiac in the 86th minute, evened matters in the second half, before Middletown North product Liam McGregor scored the game-winner in overtime.
They’ve been on fire ever since.
Three days later, after busing back up to Niagara, the Hawks went down a goal before emerging with a 2-1 quarterfinal victory, before beating Rider on the road to reach the final.
“It was amazing to see the euphoria at Quinnipiac. It kind of felt justified,” said Monmouth coach Rob McCourt. “For the guys who have been here for a period of time that was not our best as a program, to see them win up at Quinnipiac was special for me because they stuck it out.”
Fueling the Hawks’ surge has been a blend of older players, including Murray and George Akampeke, a fifth-year senior from Ghana, a talented sophomore class led by Gomez and Ben Zakowski from Glen Rock, and four international players who joined the team this spring.
The newcomers, including Bastian Hatcher (Norway), Christoffer Jensen (Denmark), Luke McBeth (Scotland) and Jonas Lindner (Germany), have helped stabilize the lineup, with the Hawks finally gaining a foothold after a pair of one-goal losses and a scoreless draw early in an abreviated spring season, after COVID-19 forced the season to be postponed in the fall.
“After a slow year (in 2019), this finally came together,” Zakowski said. “We got a bunch of new guys this semester, and I think it’s mainly the mentality that’s changed. To come back in the second half of the Niagara game, from that point on we knew anything was possible, no matter what happened. Whether we were down, whether we were the sixth seed, whatever it was going to take.”
“I know it’s cliché, but going through all of that adversity helped us become stronger as a team, as individuals,” Murray said. “We got together at the end of last season and we said, ‘we’ve been through some rough times, we can’t keep doing things the same way. We have to change the culture within the group if we really want to have success and turn things around.’
“There were some tough times there but we learned from them used them to our benefit and we got our reward in the end.’
Now Monmouth, returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since losing 2-1 in double-overtime at Xavier in 2014, takes on a Bowling Green squad that won the Mid-American Conference title. The winner advances to face Pittsburgh, which lost to Clemson in the ACC final.
“We have a lot of confidence right now,” said Gomez, who has scored a goal in five straight games. “I think we’re really together and the team environment is great. We’ve been supporting each other through the good and bad moments.”