After a 1-5-1 start against opponents like Virginia, William and Mary and Georgetown, Mount St. Mary's men's soccer coach Mark Mettrick could have panicked with five freshmen in his starting lineup. And he almost did.
"I didn't know if that would work in our favor or against us," Mettrick said, looking back to the stretch that preceded a 10-game unbeaten streak. "I'm not going to claim responsibility, this is just what's happened."
Apparently, the hard knocks toughened the Mount (10-5-2) for Northeast Conference play, which it has dominated, although its nine-game winning streak ended Wednesday with a 0-0 tie against St. Francis (Pa.)
Still, the team enters Sunday unbeaten in the NEC, in the same position as UMBC, its nationally ranked opponent and host in a 2: 30 p.m. game that will probably determine the league champion.
To grab the top seed in the conference tournament, which starts next Friday, UMBC must beat, not tie, the Mount. Though both teams enter with 8-0-1 records in the NEC, Mount St. Mary's would win out by virtue of its victories over the best other team, third-place Fairleigh Dickinson, a team the Retrievers tied.
There's the possibility that both teams will meet in the final of the NEC tournament (at UMBC).While the Mountaineers haven't much to lose in Sunday's game, UMBC does have a 16-game unbeaten streak to consider.
"I expect us to play our best," UMBC coach Pete Caringi said. "We're well aware that the tournament's next weekend. But I expect our team to play well and try to keep this thing going."
"I imagine they'll want to finish the season off, because it [going undefeated] is something that very few teams do," Mettrick said. "[Caringi] is like the Don Shula of college soccer. The regular season is nice, but it's not the jewel in the crown. It's not a must win for us."
Mettrick, in his sixth season in Emmitsburg, calls his charges "the lads," as if he's leading a Boy Scout troop rather than a college soccer team. He started off with 10 freshmen who struggled, their backfield allowing opponents to get behind them, their forwards universally futile in their efforts to generate any offense.
The team suffered shutouts from Georgetown and Virginia, and Towson and St. Peter's victimized them as well.
"Some of that had to do with the people we were playing," Mettrick said. "When we were 1-5-1, there was some concern. The guys were questioning if we were going to have a bad season."
Then, the elixir for all floundering seasons arrived -- conference play in the NEC. Mettrick himself admitted the downgrade from what the Mount had been facing.
Two close road wins at Sacred Heart and Fairleigh Dickinson started the streak. Mettrick said those games put the team on track.
"If we'd gone down there, that would have been devastating," Mettrick said.
The Mount has succeeded by allowing only three goals during the streak, thanks to defenders Niall Lepper, Danny Dawson and Reid Shaklee (Severna Park), and goalkeeper Rob Ray (Dundalk).
Unfortunately, Mount St. Mary's has problems scoring, as demonstrated against St. Francis (Pa.). Out of 17 games this season, there have been only six in which the Mountaineers produced more than one goal and the team has been shut out five times.
Even during the streak, seven games have been decided by one goal. Mount St. Mary's might feel apower outage against No. 20 UMBC, which has added solid defense to its traditional scoring ability.
Towson still contending
A football team making the playoffs in Division I-AA while losing to both Columbia and Morgan State borders on the fantastic, but that's the opportunity that Towson holds going into tomorrow's 12: 30 p.m. game against Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pa.
Though the early-season losses had an eye-blurring effect, the Tigers are 4-0 in the Patriot League, which awards an automatic NCAA playoff berth to its winner. Some are billing this game, against the No. 8 I-AA team, as the biggest in Towson football history.
The odds? Longer than a walk to Alaska. Last year, Lehigh nearly beat the eventual national champion (Massachusetts) in the playoffs and has looked better against the two teams' common opponents this season.
Still, the position is better than Towson has been in recently.
"The preparation has been very exciting; it's been rewarding to everyone around the football team," Towson coach Gordy Combs said. "It's the ninth game, and we're playing for first place when I don't think anyone expected us to be here. We were picked for last or next-to-last."
It was last. And while the elite of the conference -- Lehigh and Colgate -- are still to come, the Tigers have beaten everyone else in league play, teams all picked ahead of them.
Combs gambled that his team could survive last week's Fordham game without Jason Corle on offense and Ricky Crestwell on defense, and won, with Ed Kulic's 24-yard field goal aiding the escape. Both will be back tomorrow.
The one-week sabbatical came at the expense of Corle's seven-game touchdown reception streak. Two years ago, Combs said the layoff would have rankled his back. Not now.
"He and I talked about how it would be the best thing, and if we could get by, maybe he'll be stronger for Lehigh," Combs said. "It goes with his growth. He's never played on a winning team. I just think he wants to win."
Pub Date: 10/29/99