Men’s Soccer Stuffs Stags, Keeps Playoff Hopes Alive

Call them zombies: just in time for Halloween, the Sagehens are back from the dead.

On Wednesday, the Sagehens entered their final game against CMS with their backs to the wall. After 90 minutes of some of the most physical soccer in SCIAC history, the Sagehens emerged clutching a 2-1 victory thanks to an early strike from Owen Hawkins PO ’12 and a late game-winner from Erik Munzer PZ ’13. The win sent shock waves rippling across SCIAC and gave P-P renewed hope of making the conference tournament.

Before delving into the game, let me first explain the SCIAC playoff situation. There are four spots in the men’s soccer playoffs. Three of those positions have already been clinched by Redlands, CMS, and Whittier, respectively. P-P, La Verne, and Occidental are currently grappling for the final berth. If the Hens defeat La Verne at its home field on Saturday, we will sneak into the playoffs by a whisker.

Now, back to Wednesday: coming into the game, P-P absolutely had to win. After losing to La Verne in a makeup contest on Monday, the Sagehens had dug themselves into a hole in which their only road to the playoffs involved beating the #2 team in the league. Many fans and players had already written off the Sagehens. Surely, La Verne was salivating over the opportunity to clinch a playoff berth simply by tying at home.

With an estimated 100 fans in attendance, the Sagehens kicked off promptly at 4 p.m. P-P controlled play early, and that quality quickly translated into a goal when Hawkins received a ball at the corner of the 18 and launched a dipping shot over the keeper to the far post.

“He had no angle,” Alec Larson PO ’11 said afterward. “I have no idea how that went in, but it was a brilliant strike.”

The score remained 1-0 until halftime. As word spread that the Sagehens were clinging to a lead, fans began to trickle in, and the Stadium Pulse at Swartz Field steadily climbed to a crescendo. Just eight minutes into the half, Ryan Miller PO ’14 was taken out at the ankles, and play stopped for about five minutes as he was tended to by the P-P training staff. Despite being helped off the field, Miller would return and make a game-saving sliding tackle inside the Sagehen penalty area.

After the break, the tempo of the game changed. The Sagehens, who had looked comfortable with the ball early, started struggling to put passes together, and the Stags won a handful of corners and looked the more dangerous side. Nevertheless, P-P held firm, and it came as a surprise when a CMS defender played a long ball right through the heart of the P-P defense to the feet of a striker, who one-timed it past keeper Rollie Thayer PO ’13. Just like that, the game was tied.

That play seemed to light a fire in Eben Perkins PO ’11. From that point on, Perkins was an absolute force to be reckoned with on the field, winning balls and destroying plenty of opposing players’ bodies in the process. It was a truly delightful sight to watch him and Munzer manhandle the little redheaded leprechaun who doubled as a CMS striker.

The physical play didn’t just emanate from P-P’s back line. All around the field, players were flying into each other with nary a whistle from the referee. But despite the fact that their front line had just one player who weighed over 160 pounds, the Sagehens managed to mount an attack. With just over 15 minutes to go, Robbie Hull PO ’13 was dragged down about 35 yards from goal. On one of the few occasions that the referee did call a foul, he set up a free kick right in the center of the field, and Munzer stepped up to take it.

“I was just trying to whip the ball in [the box] and create a rebound,” Munzer said after the game. What he did was hit an absolute howitzer at the CMS goalie, who made a valiant effort but was unable to handle the knuckler. As the ball sailed into the top of the net, the bleachers exploded with cheering, and Stag fans simply looked on in disbelief.

For the final 15 minutes, CMS mounted an all-out assault in an attempt to equalize. Fortunately, the Sagehens played equally ferocious defense everywhere on the field, and Danny Nasry PO ’13 nearly made it 3-1 with a brilliant 25-yard volley that was denied by the CMS keeper’s fingertips. With the minutes ticking away, CMS pushed farther forward and earned several corners, but each one was cleared off Perkins’ head. After the Stags air-mailed their last shot with 20 seconds left, the celebrations finally began. It was do-or-die, and the Sagehens survived.

The CMS win was so vital, however, because of a disappointing result at home against La Verne on Monday. P-P started off the match looking dominant, knocking at the Leopards’ doorstep several times during the opening 45 minutes. In particular, Nasry tugged at the heartstrings of Sagehen Nation by beating the keeper three times, only to have each of his shots denied by the crossbar, which was a far more effective goalie that day than anyone on the La Verne squad.

Finally, it was Franco Simbana PI ’12 who capitalized on a pinball-machine series of events in front of the La Verne goal. In the span of about 10 seconds, a shot from Harris Levin PO ’14 bounced off the keeper, Nasry one-timed the rebound into the post for the fourth time of the day, a La Verne defender cleared the ball momentarily, Hull recovered it and fired another shot goalwards and the deflection fell right to Simbana, who coolly beat the keeper from just over six yards out. 1-0, Sagehens.

Alas, the lead was short-lived. Just five minutes later, La Verne equalized when a botched clearance gave the Leopards a two-on-one with Thayer. Despite a fierce final 15 minutes, the score stayed 1-1, and both teams limped into overtime.

In the first 10 minutes of overtime, P-P and La Verne still looked evenly matched. Going into the second period, it was anyone’s game to win. However, after the referee blew his whistle, the game was over in the blink of an eye. The Sagehens kicked off by launching a ball deep into La Verne territory. As the P-P back line marched up toward midfield, a Leopard defender launched a long ball out of the back. Surprised, the Sagehens momentarily hesitated and allowed the ball to slip through to an onrushing striker, who took two touches and beat the helpless Thayer for the golden goal. Devastated, the Sagehens could only watch as the Leopards celebrated in a jubilant pigpile at midfield. Little did they know how they would feel just two days later.

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” The original T. Paine uttered those immortal words during the American Revolution. ESPN repeated them during an ad for the World Cup this summer. And no single phrase could better describe the roller-coaster ride that has been the last week of Pomona-Pitzer men’s soccer.

On Saturday at 1 p.m. at La Verne the Sagehens will attempt to complete their improbable run at a SCIAC playoff berth. Look for complete coverage of that game and, if they win, of the SCIAC tournament in next week’s TSL.

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