On November 9, Swarthmore men’s soccer team defeated Johns Hopkins 1-0 to capture the 2008 Centennial Conference Championship and earn a place in the NCAA Division III Tournament for the first time since 1991. Garnet freshman David Sterngold scored the winning goal in the 61st minute and the combined efforts of senior captain Rory Stackpole, who led the Swarthmore defense with his outstanding play, and freshman goalkeeper David D’Annunzio, who had his seventh shutout of the season with four saves, kept Swarthmore ahead. With the victory, Garnet set new school-records for most wins in a season (15) and most consecutive wins (11).
Coming into the tournament, Garnet’s first since the Centennial adopted a tournament format in 2001, the Swarthmore team was the first seed and had home-field advantage as the games were played on Clothier Field. As a result, the team was feeling confident before its first match with Dickinson College in the first round of the tournament.
“As the host and having run away with it during the regular season, we were pretty confident,” said Garnet coach Eric Wagner.
D’Annunzio echoed this sentiment, saying, “Sometimes going in as a #1 seed can put a lot of pressure on teams. It raises the expectations people put on you. But we had played under those conditions for most of the season. Everyone knew there was a reason we were the #1 seed, and we proved that.”
Garnet beat Dickinson in the first game of the tournament in a very close contest. The two teams were locked in a tie 1-1 at the end of regulation play and remained tied at the end of two overtimes. Swarthmore won the resulting shootout 4-2 and advanced to the championship game to face Johns Hopkins – a match-up that Garnet was looking forward to.
“I’m really glad we got to play Hopkins rather than Gettysburg. It was the perfect stage to finally beat them after such a long time. Plus we needed some payback,” said D’Annunzio, referencing Garnet losing to Johns Hopkins 2-0 earlier in the season. Coach Wagner labeled the game a “dream scenario” and Stackpole remarked that every aspect of the set-up was perfect.
“Heading into the match I was very excited…We had never beaten Hopkins, hosted the centennial tournament, or even made the championship game. Everything was perfect for me and I knew that we would come out on top.”
The game on Sunday was another tight defensive battle as the two teams remained scoreless through the first half, though Swarthmore had a 7-4 shot advantage. On defense, whenever Johns Hopkins tried to start something offensively they were stopped by the Swarthmore defensive backline. Finally, Garnet broke through at 60:11 when Sterngold chipped a shot into the goal to give Swarthmore a 1-0 lead that they would not relinquish.
After the game, Coach Wagner was pleased with the level of play demonstrated throughout the Championship game.
“It was a fantastic, high-quality soccer match that was played well on both ends. It just showed the incredible ability of the team.”
Both D’Annunzio and Stackpole emphasized the importance of how well the team played as a single unit. Said D’Annunzio: “I have never seen the guys more focused than they were on Sunday. Everyone performed their individual tasks, and everyone made sure that Hopkins knew this wasn’t going to be a fun game for them.” Stackpole added, “All over the field everyone was doing their job and we got it done.”
After the win on Sunday the players watched the film of the Centennial Conference Championship as a team to identify both strengths and weaknesses in their game. But Coach Wagner is not planning on making any major changes before the tournament begins.
“We got here by doing things the way we’ve been doing them all year so we’ll make some tweaks but nothing dramatic.”
As they gear up for the upcoming games, the team is enjoying their accomplishment. Stackpole labeled the whole thing a “dream” and D’Annunzio said it feels “unbelievable”. But perhaps no one is as proud as Coach Wagner, who, after 25 years of playing and coaching college soccer, is participating in a NCAA tournament for the first time.
“I got the team together and I just told them ‘Thanks for bringing me along for this.’ For them to put me in this position as coach, it’s magnificent. It’s going to be a great ride and I’m very excited.”
Talking about the upcoming tournament, D’Annunzio said, “We know we have the ability to go far, and we have the right mentality to take us there. We just have to take it one game at a time. We’ve already won eleven games in a row. But I think everyone’s ready to win six more.”
The NCAA Division III Tournament begins this Saturday, November 15, and Swarthmore will host the first and second rounds of the Championship for the first time. Swarthmore will host Rutgers-Camden at 5:00 P.M. and Dickinson will play Salisbury University at 7:30 P.M. The winners will face-off on Sunday at 6 P.M.