Winning the Moment: Amherst's Historic 2012

By Matthew Hart, Assistant SID

The first came on a blind redirection during a 5-1 blowout, the third on a surprising penalty kick 19 matches into the season. The second was a 20-yard equalizer from an All-American in the second half of a rivalry contest.

Three goals allowed in 20 games.

Many coaches talk about perfection. Few come as close to truly achieving it as Justin Serpone did with his Amherst College men’s soccer team during the fall of 2012.

We’ll let the facts speak first. Undefeated at 17-0-3, having never trailed in a match. Two 0-0 ties with archrival Williams and a 1-1 draw with Wesleyan. A 56-3 goal differential and 17 shutouts. The nation’s greatest defense and the best season of goal prevention in NCAA history, regardless of division.

No, the Lord Jeffs did not win a national title. Thanks to a wild penalty-kick epic with Williams, they did not even reach the Final Four, despite ending the year alongside eventual champion Messiah as the only unbeaten squads in America.

But the end results will carry none of the lasting meaning of the process that created them. In the Amherst system, no single trophy, no final score will compare to the daily ritual of hard work and camaraderie aimed at attaining the words printed on the team’s purple and gray warm-ups: “Win the Moment.”

“All we care about is winning the next game,” said Serpone, taking a rare half hour out of his busy recruiting schedule to look back instead of forward. “And maybe that’s cliché, but it’s the honest-to-God truth. There wasn’t a game that I went into this year where I thought, ‘we’re going to win today.’ We won three games 6-0 this year, but every time I thought, ‘if we don’t do X, Y and Z, we could lose today.’”

For the casual fan, such an outlook – not to mention Serpone’s ever-manic sideline behavior – might smack of paranoia or downright lunacy. But for those who were lucky enough to follow the tale of the 2012 Jeffs from beginning to crushing end, it was that rigid attention to detail that made the team’s story truly historic.

I. Achieving the Goal

When the Lord Jeffs gathered in August, leaving hometowns ranging from California to Venezuela to South Korea, they were met with Serpone’s one season-long goal: win the NESCAC Championship. This year, they would be defending their 2011 title and seeking to become the first back-to-back winner since 2004 in a league which might as well stand for New England Super Competitive Athletic Conference.

“The only long-term goal we have at the beginning of the year is to win a NESCAC Championship,” said Serpone. “National championships, all that – there are a lot of things that go into that equation. That can’t be a goal. But a realistic goal, we think, is to win a NESCAC Championship every year.”

With four All-Conference standouts – including league Player of the Year Spencer Noon ’13 – returning from the 2011 squad, Serpone knew the talent was in place for a repeat. Still, it would take time for the group to hone its winning mindset.

“It’s organic, it evolves,” he said. “You don’t know who you’re going to be on day one, but somewhere it evolves into this group that believes and works hard and does all the little things right.”

Caslin

From the get-go, the Jeffs were doing plenty of right as they started 8-0, outscoring opponents 30-1 over the opening month. The only blemish came in the midst of a 5-1 rout of Hamilton when the Continentals’ Brian Whitson scored on a fortuitous redirection off his heel, tallying the only goal Amherst would allow until its penultimate regular-season contest. But despite the fast start and a No. 2 national ranking, the team remained focused on the task at hand.

“We’re a program that’s very process-oriented,” said Serpone. “That’s the way the kids approach it and that’s the crux of what makes it special. They respect the game of soccer, they respect the other teams we play, and they know that if they don’t bring their best, in this sport, you can lose any game.”

While the defense continued to dominate, the offense suffered its first hiccup on Oct. 6, failing to score despite a 25-9 shot advantage as Amherst battled 17th-ranked Williams to a draw at home. Tying their archrival for the third consecutive time, the Jeffs and Ephs each walked away from the contest with undefeated records intact and Serpone allowed himself a prophetic moment as he addressed the team postgame, promising the squad that they’d see Williams again in a month.

Three days after the disappointing tie, Amherst rebounded in emphatic fashion, posting a 6-0 thrashing of a Trinity side that entered the match 5-1-3 as Noon became the first player in program history to tally 100 points. Shutouts of Colby and Bowdoin followed as the Jeff defense and first-year keeper Thomas Bull took a miniscule 0.08 goals-against average into the final weekend of the regular season, having posted 11 clean sheets in 12 outings.

You hear it all the time in sports: in a rivalry game, the numbers go out the window. For the second time in 2012 – and not the last – the adage held true when Amherst met Little Three foe Wesleyan on Oct. 20. Noon put the Jeffs ahead just before halftime, but All-American forward Rory O’Neill equalized on an impressive 20-yard volley in the 66th minute and Cardinal goalie Adam Purdy made a career-high 10 saves as Amherst settled for its second draw of the year despite another massive shot advantage (29-12).

The Jeffs would only have to wait two weeks for another shot at Wesleyan, however. After ending the regular season with a 3-0 win at Connecticut College and dismantling Middlebury, 4-0, in the conference quarterfinals, Amherst drew the Cardinals for the semifinals on Nov. 3. But in the postseason’s first twist of fate, the team would be traveling to Williamstown for the tilt, as a coin flip had given Williams top seed following a regular season in which the Jeffs and Ephs finished with identical conference results.

Seeding aside, there was no doubt as to the conference’s dominant team come semifinal Saturday. After Williams required penalty kicks to get past upset-minded Tufts in the day’s opener, the Amherst backline put on yet another clinic against Wesleyan, surrendering just seven shots (two on net) as Max Fikke ’14 provided the offense in a 1-0 win.

And so the stage was set for Amherst-Williams, Part II. One win away from its stated goal, the Jeffs wasted no time in doing what they couldn’t in October. Chris Lerner ’13 bent a long cross into the box in the second minute, setting up a dazzling Jae Heo ’14 header that set the mood.

“I felt in the locker room before that game that we weren’t going to lose,” said Serpone. “We scored in the second minute and from there it felt like we had a handle on the game all the way through. It was a special day.”

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With James Mooney ’13E tapping in a Gabriel Wirz ’15 header later in the first period and the backline anchored by Lerner and Julien Aoyama ’14 continuing to dominate its half, the Jeffs fended off Williams’ late attacks and rushed the field in the closing seconds, champions once again after another shutout. For the seniors, it was the first win over Williams in four years. For Serpone – as well as Heo and Mooney, who arrived in 2008 before missing seasons – it was a third conference title in five. For each team member, it would be the climax to a fall full of winning moments.

But it was not the end of the story.

II. The One-Game Season

Qualifying for the NCAA Tournament was nothing new. In six years under Serpone, the program had never not qualified. But 2012 was a different beast: for the first time since 2007 – before even Mooney and Heo were around – the Jeffs had earned a first-round bye as the nation’s second-ranked team.

And while there were seven free passes handed out in Serpone’s debut season, in 2012 there were only two. One to Amherst, one to the perennial powerhouses of Division III, Messiah College of Pennsylvania.

Heading into a national tournament, Serpone’s sides had never yielded fewer than eight goals nor carried a zero in their loss column. This year, perched atop an entire half of the bracket, the undefeated Jeffs had outscored their opponents 50-2 in 17 matches. They would be playing as favorites until the national title game if they made it that far, but don’t think for a minute that they were looking ahead.

“Now you have a one-game season coming up,” said Serpone, recalling his message to the team at the time. “The easy thing for me to say is, ‘some of these seniors are playing their last game today.’ That’ll refocus you pretty quickly, because you want to keep playing, to keep building your resume to be special as a team. And you don’t have time to mess around, because you’re playing a team like Dickinson.”

Noon2

Ranked No. 13 earlier in the fall and with their only losses coming to other NCAA tournament-bound squads, the Dickinson College Red Devils made the six-hour drive from Central Pennsylvania to Amherst deservedly confident in their ability to pull off a second-round upset. Such a result seemed entirely possible for 63 minutes on Sunday, Nov. 11 as Amherst led just 1-0 on Fikke’s first-half tally and dodged a huge bullet in the 57th when Dickinson’s sparkplug midfielder Jamie Martin sent a beautiful through ball to an open Nicolas Tierno. The clean chance flew wide, however, and like any dominant team, Amherst capitalized on their opponent’s mistake, opening the floodgates in the 64th and cruising to a 4-0 win as Noon struck twice and Greg Singer ’16 blasted a beauty from the top of the 18, all within a span of eight and a half minutes.

Hurdle one, crossed. With a single win, the Jeffs were headed to their third consecutive Sweet 16 and fifth in six years. But now the hill would get steeper, and history was against them in the form of a 1-3 record in sectional semifinal games under Serpone.

Yet with all of their attention on the upcoming Swarthmore match, you still couldn’t help but notice them. When the bracket was first released, you couldn’t help but notice them. There they were, sitting at the bottom of Amherst’s section: the Ephs. And when they scored with 10 minutes left in regulation and again in overtime for a 2-1 second-round win in a match dominated by St. Lawrence, a third Amherst-Williams clash seemed almost inevitable.

But first came Saturday. For the second straight weekend, the Jeffs would square off with a talented squad from soccer-rich Pennsylvania’s Centennial Conference. Undefeated in league play, Swarthmore had lost only to fellow Sweet 16 qualifier Stevens (N.J.) in September and rival Haverford in the conference championship. After a pair of 3-0 wins in the opening rounds, the Garnet could hardly be taken for granted. Williams, meanwhile, would need to get past a two-loss Brandeis side riding the wave of a last-minute winner against Vassar in the second round.

As the Ephs walked onto Amherst’s Hitchcock Field to warm up for the day’s opening match, one player said to the team, “our field, all weekend.” The bold statement seemed far from accurate at first, as a back-and-forth battle saw Brandeis generate the better first-half chances. But it was the Ephs’ dynamic duo that would prove to be the difference as NESCAC Rookie of the Year Mohammed Rashid found Patrick Ebobisse for the game’s lone goal in the 64th minute. After three one-goal wins, the Ephs had punched their ticket for a rematch. Now Amherst had to do its part.

Reflecting on his senior class, Serpone said of Noon, “Every game Spencer went out there, he thought he was going to score a goal and be the margin of victory. More often than not, it happened.”

One win away from a third date with Williams, Amherst’s star striker rose to the occasion yet again, first sending a pinpoint corner to the accurate head of Wirz for a late first-half goal, then wrestling away possession from the Swarthmore defense and finishing a low rocket in the second. It was all the Jeffs would need as the Garnet’s only shot on goal came on a successful penalty kick from Noah Sterngold in the 63rd minute.

The 2-1 win broke Amherst’s run of five straight shutouts, but if you doubt the dominance of Amherst’s defense, look again. Against the Jeff backline, a 16-2-2 Garnet side that had scored three times in each of the first two rounds managed just a single shot on target, and it came on a penalty kick.

Another stifling defensive effort. More Noon offense. The beat went on, on to the irresistible third matchup between a college founded in 1793 and the offshoot institution that had relocated in the fertile Connecticut River Valley 28 years later.

III. The Unthinkable

An instant classic. The greatest game I’ve ever seen. The Soccer Gods. Karma.

You might hear those phrases tossed around by neutral observers or Eph faithful who witnessed the third Amherst-Williams meeting of 2012.

But for the Lord Jeff side, it was simply the unthinkable. Not necessarily the result, but the shocking course of events which accounted for it. To borrow a phrase from a different sport’s NCAA lore, it was no less than Heartbreak City.

If this is your first time reading about the game, it was, undoubtedly, one for the ages. Just as they had in October, the rivals played 110 scoreless minutes on Hitchcock Field. Just as they had in October, the Jeffs tallied 16 more shots than the Ephs but none found the back of the net.

But unlike their regular season matchup, and certainly unlike the NESCAC final two weeks prior, fate dealt Amherst the cruelest of hands in the national quarterfinals.

Five – five – Jeff shots ricocheted off the crossbar during the match. Several more of their 23 attempts were nearly as close. Yet after 90 minutes of regulation and two ten-minute overtimes, a Williams defense starting a pair of first-years at outside back somehow kept Amherst and its relentless direct approach off the board. The near-misses play back like the hard-knocks montage in a Rocky film.

Third minute: Lerner directs a long header into the box. Milton Rico ’15 wins it out of the air and sends it to Heo. The junior, who buried Williams just over a minute into the match two weeks ago, tees up an open look and watches it carom off the woodwork and fly high.

20th minute: Noon slips through the Eph defenders and appears headed for a breakaway, but is dropped from behind by an aggressive but apparently clean tackle from Dan Lima.

42nd minute: Not one, but two Amherst chances find the bar as Aoyama blasts one from the top of the box only to have it carom straight back to Rico just feet away. The sophomore collects, fires and the crossbar’s clang fills the air seconds after its first bellowing as the teams enter halftime scoreless.

62nd minute: Lerner sends a trademark long throw into the middle of the box and Noon wins it for a clean header, only to be denied by the woodwork yet again.

89th minute: After Williams misses on its first serious threat with User Kushaina tapping one just inches wide in the previous minute, Amherst surges forward in the final push of regulation. After a chaotic scramble near the top of the box, the ball falls back ten yards to Wirz, who meets it beautifully for a twisting blast on target that seems destined for glory. But Than Finan ’13, having already made a pair of strong stops earlier in the half, turns in the decisive save, rising to tip the ball over the net and send the battle onward.

First overtime: After Williams becomes an unlikely aggressor, missing on three chances as Bull makes his only two saves of the match, Aoyama is robbed for the second time, with Singer finding him at the top of the 18 for a gorgeous shot that just catches the woodwork.

Second overtime: In a final effort, Lerner heaves another long throw toward the box, finding Singer, who flips a nifty pass over his head for Heo, but the junior’s shot from a tough angle flies just wide of the right post.

And so it went to penalties, 110 minutes of exhausting team play meaningless in determining who would advance to San Antonio, a beautiful behemoth of a game doomed to be decided by individual efforts. The Ephs had already played seven overtime matches on the year – five going the full 110 – and beaten Tufts on PKs back in the NESCAC semifinals. Amherst hadn’t been to a shootout since the 2010 Sweet 16 as the Jeffs’ juniors and seniors fended off memories of another NESCAC rival, Bowdoin, advancing past them in that contest, 3-1.

It would take five rounds this time, as Finan and Bull each made impressive saves to begin. But in perhaps the most torturing twist on an already agonizing day, Aoyama, the soon-to-be-named national Defender of the Year, the model teammate whose prowess at outside back was perhaps the most instrumental key to the Jeffs’ success, misfired in the third round.

When Ebobisse slotted the fifth-round winner moments later, the devastation was complete. The penalty-takers crumpled at midfield. Their teammates stared in shock from the far bench. There would be no Final Four, no dream matchup with Messiah. It was over right there on their home pitch, between two white goals that had seemingly turned against them for the first time.

“We didn’t score and that’s why we didn’t advance,” summed up Serpone.

Team

But through all the crossbar robberies and dashed chances, they had kept confident, and even once the Ephs had rushed the field in disbelieving joy, it didn’t quite seem real.

“We just thought, ‘keep doing what you’re doing. It’s coming,’” Serpone recalled. “I thought that all the way until the last penalty kick went in. I thought, ‘this team deserves this too much.’ We did everything right and a bunch of times it came pretty damn close, but some things you can’t conceptualize. You try your hardest and then – to heck with it.

“If the worst thing that happens to us is that we lose a soccer game, individually we’re going to be okay. As a team, our heart is broken, but there’s some poetry in the fact that that’s how this team lost, because we went out and we played as hard as we could play. We did everything but put the ball in the back of the goal. It took PKs to take us down. It took a team getting a little bit lucky to take us down, and there’s some grace in that.”

IV. One for the Record Books

Once the bitter taste of it all had begun to subside, once Williams had bowed out in the national semifinals to an Ohio Northern side that Messiah would crush, 5-1, in the final, the remarkable achievements of the 2012 Lord Jeffs shone on.

Individually, the awards piled up like Thanksgiving leftovers. All-NESCAC for Lerner, Noon, Aoyama and Heo; Academic All-America for Noon; First Team All-America from the NSCAA for both Aoyama and Noon, All-Region for Lerner, Heo and Mooney; D3soccer.com All-America for the pillars of the defense in Aoyama and Lerner and the Defender of the Year award for the junior who had delivered tear-stained apologies to his teammates after the missed penalty a month earlier.

Above those accolades, however, rose the accomplishments of a nine-person senior class that posted a gaudy 58-8-10 record over four years, winning two conference titles and going 7-2-2 in NCAA Tournament play.

It was the same group that lost 4-1 to Connecticut College four matches into its first season; the same group that advanced to the Sweet 16 the next fall when Mooney scored a hat trick against host St. Lawrence in the second round; the same group that didn’t lose until the final day of the regular season in 2011 before winning a NESCAC title in front of its home fans. For Serpone, 2012 was icing on an already-baked cake.

“It really felt like a culmination in a lot of ways for this particular senior class,” he said. “They came in as first-years and they were an important group. We had just graduated a Final Four team that was very upperclassmen-heavy, so we needed these first-years to play. Over four years we got scarred, we got beat up, we learned, we grew, and this year was a culmination of all that.”

It was a group captained by Noon, the greatest finisher in the program’s history, and Lerner, the heart and soul of the greatest defense Amherst has ever seen.

“I said to the guys their freshman year,” Serpone recalled, “‘What this program needs at some point is a Tom Brady, a guy that wants to be the center of attention, wants to lead, wants to put this team on their back, wants to be responsible for winning. Spence texted me a couple of weeks ago and said, ‘Coach, maybe I wasn’t Tom Brady exactly, but I tried my hardest.’”

From jubilant goal celebrations to shouldering the blame after his missed penalty kick handed the Jeffs their first loss of 2011, Noon never shied from the spotlight. Finishing his career as the program’s all-time points (117) and goals (49) leader, he walked the walk every step of the way.

Lerner, meanwhile, was the undisputed anchor of the team both on and off the pitch. Whether shutting down opponents on the wing, effectively turning throw-ins into corners, or picking up cones after practice, his commitment impressed anyone who witnessed it.

“Chris Lerner is as impressive a human being as I’ve ever been around, and that’s not just among kids I’ve coached,” Serpone said flatly. “People thought he was too small, people thought he wasn’t technical enough, and he just decided at some point, ‘I’m going to be a great player.’ Soccer’s the smaller part of it, because off the field, here’s a kid that can be trusted to do everything. Every single guy on our team looks to him. We joked around that we should have bracelets that say ‘WWCD.’”

And then there was Mooney, the old man of the group and another captain, who came back after missing 2011 with an injury to score five goals during an All-Region senior season.

“He got hurt, was disappointed, and taught me a lesson,” Serpone recalled. “He said to me that he wanted to come back and be a part of a special season. He’s going to be a doctor, he’s going to med school next year, but he cared so much that he put the group ahead of his own timeline and his own life because he believed so much in it. For James, it wasn’t necessarily about playing time or scoring goals or any of that. It was about winning.”

For anyone who watched the Jeffs over the last four years, it was also impossible to overlook Alejandro and Federico Sucre. And while the former earned captaincy after an All-NESCAC junior season, it was the latter that shone in 2012, starting at midfield and scoring five times as the team overcame the loss of his brother to injury nine games into the season.

“The lasting image I’ll have of this season was after the NESCAC Championship, Fede couldn’t even celebrate,” Serpone said. “He had his head down in the corner of the locker room because he was so spent, and that says everything about Fede.”

“My heart breaks for Ale to have gotten injured this year,” he added. “For most people, that would be a death sentence, but he was basically a part of our coaching staff for the time that he was out. He tried so hard to get back, and that’s his character. You can’t meet anyone on campus who doesn’t look at Ale or Fede and think what great guys they are. It just didn’t work out for Ale this year, but he’s been such a big part of our success over the last four years, it’s immeasurable.”

While it was Noon, Lerner, Mooney and the Sucres who were regular leaders between the lines, the examples set by the four other seniors were equally – if not more – instrumental in the team’s success.

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“Jared Hedglin and Chris Nelson, Casey [McNamara] and Brian Morgan – those guys are really good soccer players,” said Serpone. “On almost every other Division III team, these guys are 90-minute starters, but it was never about that for them. It was about, ‘How do I help us win?’ The first bricks in the foundation of our team are guys on the bench that still care, still work, still bring their energy to practice.”

Statistically, the machine built from that foundation succeeded unlike any that had come before it, even the 2008 Final Four squad. The 2012 Jeffs set program records for wins and goals in a season, but their true backbone was a defense that suffocated teams with a ruthless efficiency seen rarely at any level of the sport. Amherst outshot its opponents 407-120 on the year, surrendering an average of just six shots per game and a miniscule 2.05 attempts on goal. The team posted shutouts in 85 percent of its matches, easily the nation’s highest figure and tied for third all-time in the Division III record book.

But the most forceful number of them all is simply three. Three goals allowed in 1,860 minutes of soccer.

In 2008, York College of Pennsylvania also posted 17 shutouts over a 20-game season. The Spartans also allowed just three goals. Like the 2012 Jeffs, they saw three matches go to double-overtime. They experienced heartbreak in perhaps an even worse manner than Amherst, falling on penalties in both the Capital Area Conference semifinals and the second-round of the NCAA Tournament.

Unlike the Jeffs, however, York’s first overtime affair of the year was not a 110-minute draw, instead ending with a Spartan goal just 27 seconds before the final horn. As a result, York played 27 fewer seconds of soccer in 2008 than Amherst did in 2012. With no Division I or II teams close, that margin gives the Jeffs the lowest single-season goals-against average of any team in NCAA history.

If your standard is the process and not the end result, if you care about winning every moment before winning every match, that makes the 2012 Amherst College Lord Jeffs about as close to perfect as any team has ever come.