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Navy forward Jacob Williams controls the ball while warding off defensive pressure.
Navy forward Jacob Williams controls the ball while warding off defensive pressure. (Debbie Latta)

The Navy men’s soccer team has cemented its first berth in the Patriot League tournament since 2014, and after several trying seasons, junior forward Nicko West welcomes the achievement.

“It is really nice knowing that because the last two years have been difficult,” he said, referring to records of 2-13-2 overall and 0-7-2 in the conference in 2017 and 5-11-1 and 4-5-0 in 2018. “We’ve had losing records, and we were always really close to being where we wanted to be, but we were always a young team or there were so many adjustments that we needed to make. This year, you can see our style of play really come together, and it’s been really beneficial for us this year.”

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The Midshipmen (12-3-1, 5-3-1 Patriot League) beat Colgate, 1-0, on Wednesday night to end a three-game losing streak and secure the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament. They’ll host No. 6 seed Bucknell (5-6-7, 2-2-5) in a quarterfinal on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Glenn Warner Soccer Facility in Annapolis.

No. 4 seed Lafayette (8-6-4, 4-3-2) will host No. 5 seed Colgate (6-8-4, 4-4-1) on Saturday at 3 p.m. The semifinals begin Tuesday, with top seed Lehigh (11-4-3, 6-0-3) hosting the lowest remaining seed at 6 p.m. and No. 2 seed Loyola Maryland (10-7-1, 7-2-0) hosting the highest remaining seed at 7 p.m. The championship game will be hosted by the highest remaining seed Nov. 16.

Navy’s entry into the tournament has been built on a suddenly potent offense. That unit finished the regular season ranked third in the conference in scoring at 1.6 goals per game, the academy’s highest rate since the 2012 squad averaged 1.9 goals. The team’s 1.5 assists per game are its highest since the 2014 group averaged 1.8.

The Midshipmen are the only team in the league with two players ranked in the Top 4 in points per game in forwards Jacob Williams (third with 1.1) and Nicko West (tied for fourth with 1.0) and have joined the Greyhounds as the only team with two players in the Top 4 in goals per game (Williams and West tied for fourth with 0.4). Coach Tim O’Donohue does not mince words about their value to the offense.

“They’re our guys up top, and we kind of live and die with them,” he said. “We’re successful when we’re finishing games and closing games and those guys are doing well. When we’re falling a little short, it’s a lot of pressure on those guys. So they’re a huge part of what we’re doing.”

Navy's Matt Nocita leaps to connect with the ball.
Navy's Matt Nocita leaps to connect with the ball. (Debbie Latta)

Williams, a 5-foot-7, 150-pound sophomore who grew up in Millersville and graduated from Old Mill, leads Navy in goals with seven and points with 18, and his four assists rank second to senior defender Diego Manrique’s five. But his output is not terribly surprising considering Williams scored eight goals a year ago.

After totaling four goals, one assist and nine points in 26 games (including two starts) in his first two seasons, West has seven goals, two assists and 16 points this fall.

The 6-foot, 180-pound junior said his morale got a boost when he scored two goals and assisted on another in last year’s 4-1 victory at Bucknell in the season finale. He then took advantage of going to summer school in Annapolis to work with Williams and study film with assistant coach Mark Risbridger.

“I didn’t play as much as I wanted to,” he said, citing appearances in 10 games but zero starts. “So in the offseason, I pushed myself, got in the weight room, got touches off the field, got my conditioning. That translated to on-the-field. I just got more confident.”

Williams said he has seen West refine his ability to finish scoring chances.

“Every striker can get a million opportunities in the world, but a lot of them can’t really put the ball in the back of the net,” he said. “I think that’s what Nicko has worked on the most, just being calm over the ball and placing it right in the back of the net and figuring out that every shot does not have to be a powerhouse kick. I think that’s really helped him executing and coming up big for us in these games.”

West, who scored six goals and added two assists during a six-game stretch, said he has developed a nice rapport with Williams, whose prowess with the ball has opened opportunities for West and other teammates.

“He draws a lot of players in off the dribble,” West said. “He makes it really easy for me to open up some space and then run in from behind. So I feel like our styles of play complement each other pretty well.”

O’Donohue said Williams and West have thrived in a system in which the forwards are consistently testing opposing defenses.

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“We’ve played two forwards up top, which I think has been helpful to have two guys pressing and two guys attacking,” he said. “They’re threats every time they go out there.”

O’Donohue said opponents have begun to double- and triple-team Williams to force him to give up possession and are heavily shadowing West. West said he and Williams are comfortable playing against that strategy.

“When teams mark Jacob or me, it makes a lot of space for guys like Diego Manrique and [sophomore forward] Joe Alex and [junior defender/midfielder] Toni Adewole and [junior midfielder/forward] Wyatt Millard to get free and create opportunities for themselves,” he said. “They’re phenomenal players, and they can get behind. So when teams play us differently, it just opens up space for guys that are just as dangerous or even more dangerous on our team.”

O’Donohue conceded that the team is successful when Williams and West are getting chances and taking advantage of those opportunities. That would seem to place a lot of pressure on the duo to score, but Williams said they embrace the challenge.

“There’s always pressure, especially when you’re the front guys,” he said. “The team looks to you to put the ball in the back of the net to get us up and win those games. I don’t think we’re scared of the pressure because at the end of the day, we have nine, eight guys behind us who are looking at us and have our backs. We’re not scared of failure, and they’re not scared of us to fail, and they count on us. I think that gives us pride to carry through and finish when it counts.”

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