Crowded around the television at the Liacouras Center Monday afternoon, the members of the Temple men’s soccer team crossed their fingers, toes, and hearts, hoping to be one of the 25 at-large teams chosen to compete in the NCAA Tournament.
In the Atlantic Ten Tournament, the Owls shut out George Washington and survived two overtimes with Duquesne, before falling to fifth-seeded Rhode Island in the final 3-1. The winner of the tournament gained an automatic bid to the NCAAs; the runners-up went home to huddle around a television on Monday afternoon.
As the ESPN analysts rattled off name after name, each of the players came to the harsh realization that the Cinderella season was over.
Temple hardly played a season to be scoffed at. Its 13-6-3 record was the best since 1990, good for Temple’s first A-10 tourney appearance since 1993.
“I didn’t have high hopes of us getting a bid, but I wanted the guys to experience not being selected,” second year coach Dave MacWilliams said, who requested the team watch the selection show as a group. “Next year they can go out focused to win the conference.”
For junior forward Nate Webb, the pain of being down-and-out could not diminish the satisfaction of being up-and-coming as a team.
“This season was a surprise for a lot of people; it was a surprise for us,” said Webb, the team’s leading scorer in the regular season and the tournament. “I came to Temple just hoping to play for a good team, but my first two years we were pretty bad. Our coach has brought in a lot of players, and we’re just turning the program around.”
The turnaround has been swift. Just a year removed from a six-win season in 2002, sophomore Tony Donatelli, senior Matt Moran, and Webb were chosen to the A-10 all-championship team. Junior goalkeeper Patrick Hannigan posted a conference-leading eight shutouts and a 0.55 goals-against average as the runaway A-10 Defensive Player of the Year.
However, the failure to ensure a NCAA bid remains this year’s most frustrating blemish. Temple twice held the lead in the final game.
“I just think we ran out of gas, playing three games in four days,” MacWilliams said. “Then again, both teams that had first-round byes lost. So in a way, playing actually might have kept the rust off a little bit.”
Temple scored first on freshman Ryan Heins’ first collegiate goal. Rhode Island forward Sasha Gotsmanov tied the game at 1-1, where it remained until Temple’s Webb appeared to score on the rebound of a long-distance shot by Donatelli. Donatelli’s shot was ruled offside and disallowed Webb’s goal.
Instead of Temple holding a 2-1 advantage the game remained tied and eventually the Owls could no longer resist the Rams’ attack. The Rams took the lead in the 77th minute, and Tournament MVP Perek Belleh delivered an insurance goal in the 81st minute to ensure the 3-1 victory.
MacWilliams seemed disappointed, but not dejected. “It was an unfortunate call. We took the lead on that goal, and then to have it disallowed changed the way the game could have gone. Who knows? If the goal was allowed, the game might have gone differently and we could be talking about the upcoming postseason.”
First on Webb and Temple’s to-do list for next season: Don’t leave the matter up to the selection committee.
“It’s tough to get into the [NCAA] Tournament if you’re in the Atlantic 10, based on the lack of respect we get as a school and as a conference,” Webb said. “Next year we’ll just have to win the conference. We had a feeling we’d have to do that this year, but next year it will seem like more of a reality.”
The Owls will return all but one player from this year’s squad. And MacWilliams should see a surge in recruiting now that he’s put the program back on the map. In addition, the Owls will begin play at their new home facility on Temple Ambler campus next year.
Benjamin Wantanabe can be reached at email@example.com.