The Owls took one step closer to winning the first Atlantic Ten Championship in school history yesterday by defeating La Salle, 1-0, in the opening round of the A-10 tournament at George Washington University.
The win allowed them to advance to the semifinals against Dayton today.
Their primary aim going into this postseason was to avoid the disappointment they felt last year when they lost the championship game to Rhode Island.
“This year, guys on the team have been here before,” said senior goalkeeper Patrick Hannigan, who had three saves. “We feel we are one of the top teams.”
“Our expectations are to do one better than we did last year,” coach Dave MacWilliams said. “The team realized how close they got and they don’t want to walk away with the same feeling this weekend.”
Sophomore defender Chris Shelton scored the game-winning goal at the 59:45 mark in the second half. He won a scrum in front of the Explorer net off a corner kick by junior midfielder Tony Donatelli for his second goal of the year.
“It was just a corner kick,” Shelton said. “Donatelli kicked it a little behind me, over my head, and it went off some kid’s hand and fell right in front of me.”
The goal overshadowed an otherwise superb performance by Explorer goalkeeper Stash Graham. The senior had nine saves in the game and set a school record for saves with 463 in his career. The Owls outshot the Explorers, 22-14.
“We had quite a few chances in the first half. Stash played unbelievable,” MacWilliams said. “We were prepared for a game like this. We talked before the game about how most of the games in the tournament are one-goal games, so we were prepared for that.”
Today, seniors Anthony Watto and Hannigan lead a defense that has shut out five of its last seven opponents. Hannigan, who won his second straight A-10 Defensive Player of the Year award, allowed a 1.06 goals a game.
“The defense is the backbone of this team,” MacWilliams said.
An intriguing Dayton team awaits this afternoon, fresh off a first-round bye. The Flyers beat the Owls, 2-1, earlier this season. The Owls played (11-7-2) shorthanded in that game due to a red card. Had they had won that game, they would have been the ones sitting pretty with the first-round bye.
“We feel that we have the upper hand against [Dayton],” Hannigan said. “We felt we deserved to win and we feel that we got robbed.”
If the Owls win today, there is a high possibility they could face Duquesne in the championship game. The Owls eliminated Duquesne in the semifinals last year and beat them, 1-0, earlier this year.
“We have had a lot of success against them and we feel pretty confident playing against them,” MacWilliams said.
With the defense clicking and senior Nate Webb leading the offense, obstacles still remain in the championship pursuit. The tournament is played on artificial turf. Turf, not as forgiving as grass, presents a higher risk of injury.
If the Owls make the championship game, they will have played three games on turf in four days, creating a lot of wear and tear on their bodies.
The Owls, who need to stay healthy if they are to contend, couldn’t enjoy their victory for too long yesterday, knowing they go straight back to work today. But MacWilliams admitted the close win provided a bit of a thrill.
“I think this was just a great game,” he said. “It’s pretty special to me.”
John Kopp can be reached at email@example.com.