Amherst's Road to the Final Four

BallWith the arrival of head coach Justin Serpone last year came one of the best seasons in program history. Amherst went 15-2-1, made an appearance in the NESCAC finals and advanced to the NCAA Round of 16. Despite high expectations and a No. 9 ranking early this season, the Lord Jeffs lost three games early on and got off to a disappointing 2-3 start in conference play.

Making its second appearance in the semifinals of the NCAA Men’s Soccer Championships, Amherst has a chance to win the first national title in program history. While the road to the Final Four has been an exciting one, the team’s recent success would not have been possible without early-season struggles. Coach Serpone recently discussed the 2008 season’s ups and downs.

What were your expectations heading into the 2008 season?
"Soccer is a tough game to have expectations for. We have a sign in the locker room that says, 'If we do well in the league, we'll do well in the country.' The NESCAC is one of the best, if not the best, conferences in Division III, so that's how we approached the season."

What were your thoughts after losing to Connecticut College to fall to 5-3?

“I wasn’t happy with how things were going. We needed to make changes immediately, and we needed to regroup. Looking back, I am confident we wouldn’t be where we are had we not started the way we did. 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’re better for it.”

What changes did you make after the loss to Connecticut?
“We made drastic changes to the starting lineup. Proven players and regular starters became bench players. Bench players became starters and were asked to step into a leading role. The guys embraced their new roles, though, and they realized we needed to wake up. It really is a testament to them—they could have complained and checked out, but they became hungrier and more competitive.”

Why did you make G.L. Genco '10 a captain midway through the season?
“G.L.’s personality is a very positive force on the field, and he’s not afraid to tell people what’s on his mind. We didn’t have enough competitive juice, and he gave us exactly what we needed. He's a great leader and a great competitor, and the other guys on the team respect him.”

What did it mean to win the program’s first NESCAC title?
“The coaching staff was so proud. It would have been one thing to win it as an undefeated, highly-favored team, 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.”

Justin Serpone has led Amherst to a 30-5-4 record in his two years at the helm.
What was the turning point of the season?
“When we played Wesleyan in the regular season, we were given a red card in the first half and were forced to play a man-down for nearly 70 minutes but came from behind to earn a 1-1 tie. That game showed us the effort level we had the potential to play at, and we haven’t let up since then. I always knew our players had it in them, and it was great to see it finally come out.”

What was going through your head when Trinity University lined up for a penalty kick in the NCAA quarterfinals?
“I just kept thinking what a shame it would be to lose on a penalty kick. We battled so hard to get to that point, and I didn’t want to go out that way."

How has Lennard Kovacs '12 been able to succeed as a first-year?
“Lennard just keeps making plays for us. From saving two penalty kicks against WNEC to keeping us alive against Trinity, he has been our MVP in the postseason. He is so calm and unflappable—nothing bothers him. He manages the game very well. I knew he was going to be good, but I didn’t know he would be this good so soon.”

Is there anything about the team that people wouldn’t know by looking at your statistics and results?
“Fans probably don’t realize how many people have contributed to the team’s success. James Mooney ’12 scored in the 86th minute of the NESCAC semifinals to keep our season alive. If he doesn’t score there, we don't go to the NCAA Tournament. Joe Addison ’09 sealed the deal against WNEC by converting his penalty kick attempt. Mark Crane ’10 has come off the bench countless times to shut down opposing teams and preserve our leads. Chris Skayne ’11 has flown under the radar all season as one of the team’s best players.

“I can’t stress enough how every member of this team has played a big role in our success. Guys that don’t play in games play a bigger role than they probably realize. [Assistant coach] Chris Doney has stayed in the office until ridiculous hours of the night throughout the season. [Assistant coach] Brian Hamm has turned Lennard into one of the best goalies in Division III. [Assistant coach] Jamie Mullarkey has gone out of his way to be at all of our games and help us out as much as possible. From our trainers to our assistants, everyone has been fantastic.”

What is it like joining such great soccer programs in the Final Four?
“Messiah is in a league of its own--Coach Brandt has done remarkable things with that program. Loras went undefeated last year and has become a national powerhouse. Stevens won 18 games this year and was ranked as high as No. 5 in the nation. I’m in awe of the teams we are joining. We will simply give it everything we have and try to represent Amherst College as best we can.”