Amherst Magazine

Better for It

imageIn the opening round of the NCAA Championship, Joe Addison '09 found the back of the net to win the game for Amherst, which became one of the most feared teams in Division III.By Justin Long

The Oct. 8 match against Connecticut College was supposed to be a blowout for the Amherst men’s soccer team. But when the underdog Camels walked away with a 1-0 victory to drop the Lord Jeffs to 5-3 overall and 2-3 in the NESCAC standings, it was a wake-up call for Amherst.

Ranked ninth in the nation and second in New England going into the 2008 season, Amherst quickly tumbled out of the spotlight to become a middle-of-the-pack team. “It was difficult walking off the field after the Connecticut game knowing we put ourselves in a deep hole,” says two-time All-American Grayson Holland ’09. “I knew I didn’t want to feel like that again.”

“I wasn’t happy with how things were going,” adds head coach Justin Serpone. “We needed to make changes, and we needed to regroup.”

Serpone’s changes were drastic and immediate. Proven players and regular starters became bench players. Bench players became starters. G.L. Genco ’10, a transfer student from Connecticut College, was named the team’s fourth captain, despite being in only his first season with the Jeffs.

“The guys embraced their new roles and realized we needed to wake up,” Serpone says. “It really is a testament to them—they could have complained and checked out, but they became hungrier and more competitive.”

This new, hungry Amherst team became more versatile and learned to adapt, changing formations and tactics in the middle of games. But the Jeffs didn’t simply get better—they became unstoppable. They went 4-0-2 in their final regular season games, which included their fourth win over Williams in the past 25 years.

After earning the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, Amherst kicked off the postseason with its first win over Wesleyan since 2003. The following weekend at Trinity College, James Mooney ’12 scored with less than five minutes remaining in regulation to send the Jeffs to the NESCAC finals against defending national champion Middlebury.

Even the top-seeded Panthers, who’d defeated Amherst in the 2007 NESCAC finals, could not slow down the Jeffs, who claimed the program’s first conference title with a 2-0 victory to mark the only game all season in which Middlebury had allowed more than one goal. “As we entered the playoffs, we were confident about our chances of making some noise,” Holland says. “We knew that if we executed, we would have a chance.”

“It would have been one thing to win the NESCAC title as an undefeated, highly favored team,” adds Serpone, “but we came back from adversity and played with passion. There couldn’t have been a better way to win the program’s first championship.”

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In just one month, Amherst had become one of the most feared teams in Division III. With a nine-game unbeaten streak intact, men’s soccer hosted the first two rounds of the NCAA Championship. Facing Western New England College in the opening round for the third time in as many years, the Jeffs and Golden Bears (who’d lost only one game all season) played 110 scoreless minutes to send the game into penalty kicks. After Lennard Kovacs ’12 made a pair of saves to give Amherst some breathing room, Joe Addison ’09 found the back of the net to punch his team’s ticket to the second round. The next day, Jake Duker ’09 scored in the 68th minute to lead Amherst to a 1-0 victory over St. Lawrence, sending Amherst to the Round of 16.

Swarthmore was favored to win when it hosted the Jeffs the following weekend, but Amherst had plans of its own. Jae Heo ’12 scored with 21 seconds remaining in the first half to record the game’s lone goal. That victory moved the Jeffs on to the national quarterfinals for a showdown with Division III’s No. 1 team, Trinity University.

Amherst’s magical run was supposed to end there. Trinity—the 2003 national champion—was an undefeated powerhouse. What’s more, the Tigers had finished as the 2007 runner-up after losing to Middlebury in penalty kicks, and they weren’t about to let another NESCAC team end a dream season.

So when Trinity lined up for a penalty kick in the 70th minute of regulation with the game at 0-0, every Amherst player, coach and fan was likely thinking the season was over. “I somehow wanted to keep it from happening,” recalls Holland. “I just knew I did not want our season to end like this.”

And it didn’t. Trinity’s Tyrone Petrakis stepped up for the attempt. As Kovacs guessed to his left, Petrakis went down the middle, but the Amherst first-year made a momentous save with his legs to keep the Tigers off the board. Kovacs had come through in the clutch against the best team in the country.

“He is so calm and unflappable,” says Serpone of Kovacs, a native of Wolfersdorf, Germany. “I knew he was going to be good, but I didn’t know he would be this good so soon.” (When he made the save against Trinity, Kovacs had not yet been in the United States for six months.)

For the first time since 1997 and only the second time in program history, Amherst was headed to the NCAA Final Four. When teams reach this level of success, it’s common for head coaches to say things like, “Don’t simply be happy to be here,” or “We’re not done, yet.” But, as Serpone admits, it was great to simply be there. “It was pretty cool,” the coach says with a smile. “From seeing the national championship trophy in the hotel’s revolving glass door to watching the field being groomed as the teams practiced, I’m glad the guys could experience it.”

After the final day of practice, the nation’s four best teams arrived at the stadium. Messiah College had won five of the previous eight national titles, Loras College did not lose a single game in 2007, and Steven Institute of Technology had been nationally ranked as high as No. 5 in 2008. To say that Amherst was among an elite group of soccer programs would be an understatement.

The Jeffs finally met their match in Stevens, which needed only three minutes and 52 seconds to take a 1-0 lead. It was the first goal Amherst had allowed in more than a month. The lead increased to 2-0 in the 17th minute and 3-0 in the 53rd before Duker put Amherst on the board late in the second half. Stevens advanced to the title game with a 4-1 win, as Amherst snapped its 13-game unbeaten streak to finish the season at 15-4-3.

Losing to Stevens was heartbreaking. The seniors consoled each other, grasping the fact that they’d just played their final game. Several players cried—and couldn’t stop crying—even as Serpone spoke about the pride and joy he felt.
The game’s announcer called Amherst to midfield to accept the National Semifinalist trophy, but not a single player followed the order. The tears kept coming, the NCAA kept waiting and, for 10 incredibly emotional minutes, Amherst was in its own world, reflecting on its magical season.

Amherst ended the season ranked third in the nation. Duker set program records for goals in a season (16), goals in a career (34) and points in a career (82). The Jeffs led the NESCAC in goals per game (2.36), posted 12 shutouts and finished second in goals-against-average (0.76). Amherst was also recognized by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America for having the nation’s highest team GPA (3.48) across Divisions I, II and III.

“Early on, I made the mistake of coaching based on our success the previous year,” says Serpone. “Each year brings a new team, and we needed to find our own identity. When we found it, we went from having high expectations to being humble. We had a lot of lessons to learn, and we had to go through adversity to learn them. It wasn’t easy being 5-3, but we wound up being better for it.”

Next fall, with new faces will come a new identity to find. Highlighting the Class of ’13 will be Atlanta native Robert Gooden, who chose Amherst despite being recruited by Division I schools (including 2007 national champion and 2008 national semifinalist Wake Forest). With neither of the 2008 leading scorers returning next season, Gooden is likely to become an immediate scoring threat.

“I constantly tell our guys that we don’t have to worry about climbing a staircase—we just have to worry about the next step,” Serpone says. “The most important game of the season is whichever game is next on the schedule.”
The men will have little trouble finding motivation next season, as the 2009 schedule opens on  Sept. 12 against Bowdoin College, which handed the Jeffs a 4-2 loss in 2008. As Serpone would say, it’s the biggest game of the season.

Long, associate director of sports information at Amherst, is a sports writer for Amherst magazine.

Photos by Jessica Mestre '10