Final Third on the MAAC Pitch: Dreams of winning while at Disney World

This is a column that takes a look at all of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference men’s soccer teams throughout the course of the ’15 season.

In a year when we could safely assume who the MAAC regular season title champions were going to be — Monmouth University — by the end of September, which is about a quarter of the way through. The conference was still unsurprisingly, to at least one coach: Iona College head soccer coach Fernando Barboto, competitive.

At the start of non-conference play, he said “last year the conference had a really good year” and predicted “the league is going to be even stronger this year.” He was half-right. Six teams had winning records, both last season and the one we just had. So the MAAC had another “really good year” but it wasn’t “even stronger.” The last time the conference had less than five teams with winning records was in ’12 when there was four. It has had consistent competitiveness since.

Eric Klenofsky, Monmouth goalie and MAAC goalkeeper of the year, told “The ‘J’ Effect” the following at the quarter mark of the season:

“Pretty much every game is a dog-fight, doesn’t matter who you are– whether we’re playing Quinnipiac, who won their first game [Oct. 14], or Marist, who’s right on our tail. Once you get in conference it’s just an absolute fight, it’s a battle. Every single game. And we’ve seen that when we went to Fairfield on [Oct. 17]. I thought we deserved three points, but that being said their goalie Matt Turner had an amazing day, and Fairfield was just not going to give into us that easily. They scrapped, battled and got the result. That’s what it’s like in every single MAAC game.”

The Road To Disney

Come tournament time this season, not only those teams that earned their spot in the playoffs, based on record, qualified but also the ones that didn’t. Every team knew they’d be headed to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. — Disney — where they all had a chance at winning the MAAC championship. This format isn’t new to the conference, it repeats itself once every four years.

The best case scenario in building toward winning it all in these off years is to seed in the top five in order to earn a first-round bye because the bottom six teams are faced with the extremely arduous task of needing to win-out in four games in five days. Albeit, the best teams save themselves of just one game (i.e. three games in four days).

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Coaches across the conference have said all season that the keys in seasons such as this one are seeding, substitution management and roster depth. Another one that may be overlooked is the Florida heat once they were playing in Disney. Dave Nigro, Monmouth forward, said it was a matter of “really adjusting to it.”

“It was just a lot of hydration,” he said. “We weren’t really used to it. … We were just really gasped. But we had a couple of subs who came in and did well for us. It’s a little more just picking your moments when to go forward. You just have got to save some energy. It’s definitely a different experience playing in the weather like that. [But] playing on the those fields– that must have been the nicest grass field I’ve ever played on in my life. It was awesome but the heat it definitely took a toll on us and playing three games in four days was not easy, you didn’t have much time to recover so you just had to give everything you got, but I mean it was awesome there.”

Eric Da Costa, Quinnipiac’s head coach, said having all teams qualify for the tournament leaves competition “wide-open” and “unpredictable.” It also allows coaches and players to feel relaxed, without pressure and gives way to harder play, which has affected expected results, he said. For Quinnipiac, that couldn’t be more true.

It was selected in this season’s preseason poll to finish No. 2, behind Monmouth. And rightfully so, it clinched the regular season title in each of the last two seasons prior to this one, winning the program’s first championship in ’13 over Monmouth — its first season in the MAAC — 4-3 on penalty kicks.

Quinnipiac had a chance at a repeat over Monmouth once again in ’14 but fell to Fairfield, 3-1, ironically, on PKs. Monmouth would go on to win over Fairfield, 2-1, in double overtime off of a Nigro golden goal.

This season Quinnipiac finished No. 10 — second to last.

“The squad is away from any distractions, obviously they’ve got school work to do,” Carl Rees, Fairfield head coach, said of having the opportunity to play at Disney, “but the facility is very good. It’s an experience that the players are going to remember. The rationale for the MAAC was they want to give every player championship experience, so it does serve that purpose. I know some coaches think it’s crazy– it is physically very demanding and also mentally it’s very taxing on these guys. But I embrace it, I enjoy going down there.”

“It’s a good opportunity,” Matt Turner, Fairfield goalie, added, “because everyone deserves to experience postseason play at some point. Sometimes teams get a little unlucky with injuries and stuff like that, so some kids would never get the chance to play for anything. To keep it an open playing field and things interesting, especially in the place where dreams are made of, so to speak. It’s nice to let everyone in and to see what happens, especially in a really competitive conference like the MAAC where anything is possible.”

Earning The Much Sought After Title Of Winner

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Monmouth has had nothing but success since joining the MAAC from the NEC in ’13. It has appeared in the conference championship in all three years, including its, 3-2, loss to No. 2 Rider this season. Nigro, who has been a part of Monmouth’s run since his freshman year, said it’s not easy to always be on top and expected to win every time a chance is given.

“There’s definitely a feeling of calmness when you’ve been there before,” he said, “because you know what it takes to win, you don’t have all the nerves that you did your first time. It’s just so much more, I wouldn’t even say relaxing, it’s just like a lot of weight off your shoulders knowing that you know what it takes to win one. That you can just be relaxed on the ball, instead of going for it every time.”

“There’s a lot of pressure in [success]. Winning it one year and then having the pressure of everyone thinking that you’re going to do it again. But none of the games that you ever play are going to be easy ones, no ones just ever going to lay there and give you the championship, so you always have to be on top of your game, battling, giving it your all every single game. It’s definitely tough and not easy to do, and the fact that we’ve been to the final three times is really a testament in itself.”

It takes a certain philosophy to win championships, let alone multiple ones in a row. What makes sports so entertaining as it is, is that not every winning team has the same ideas about how to actually win. Robert McCourt, Monmouth head coach, said how he has gone about it is pressing teams, winning the ball higher up the pitch, keeping the ball, scoring more goals and giving up less on the other side, playing attractive soccer and going back on the attack.

Turner agrees with McCourt on the idea of keeping the ball out of the back net. He also said knowing what it takes to win and having players willing to sacrifice by diving on the pitch, keeping the ball off the line, etc. can help lead to a trophy as well. See? If asked, every individual person likely would agree to disagree on the topic of how to win, or anything for that matter.

When the season is all said and done, and someone is crowned, Rider in this case. Is winning most important or how these players turn out as people? Ask almost any coach and they’d probably say the latter.

“In the beginning of the season we always talk about a couple of things,” Barboto said. “And one of the things we always stress, and we kind of label it as our nuts and bolts, we’re like an engine. We’re an engine that starts in preseason and everyday it goes to preseason and everyday it goes to the season we talk about tightening the nuts and bolts, and that signifies our team comradery, bond. We’re a pretty tight group we compliment each other, we talk about being unselfish and talk about scoring a lot of goals and not caring about who scores but that we score. When you stress those kind of things as a group you hope they come to fruition.”

“We don’t set statistical goals,” Rees said. “The goal every year for us is development, obviously individual development as players in technique and tactical understanding. But also their ability to cope with different pressure situations and– this is my 19th season. Obviously it’s great to win championships but really let’s say if I leave– sooner or later I’m going to get tired of it or I’m going to retire or something like that. But hopefully my legacy is that we nurture or we foster a sense of community, leadership. Basically to facilitate an environment, enhance these young men to develop as people. So the game itself is a vehicle that tends to reveal personality, so that’s the focus. We’re all fortunate enough to be involved in this business. It’s that. It’s winning games, winning the MAAC, defend it through the national tournament, all that kind of stuff. But really my job is to develop these guys as players and as young men. That’s what we focus on. Nine times out of ten if the collective personality of the team is good, strong, depth, integrity, work ethic, all that kind of stuff. Then the people side of things tend to go hand-in-hand with that.”