UNION, N.J. – For the second year in a row, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy worked its magic against Drew University in the Landmark Conference men's soccer semifinals.
The Mariners avenged another regular-season loss to the 13th-ranked Rangers by registering a stunning 3-0 victory at Kean University on Wednesday afternoon.
Drew (15-3-1) was ranked 13th among Division III schools by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.
"It was a big win," Merchant Marine head coach Mike Smolens said. "We played our best soccer of the year. We feel good about it."
As well as the Mariners (10-6-1) should.
Their prize will be another big challenge – against regular-season champion Catholic University in the conference final in Washington, D.C. on Saturday. The Landmark champion receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III tournament.
"We talked about the three one-game seasons coming up, Susquehanna to get into the playoffs, Drew today and then the conference final," Smolens said.
Merchant Marine won at Susquehanna in overtime, 2-1, in its final regular-season game on Oct. 22.
On Wednesday, senior forward Andrew MacKenzie, junior forward Cody Kessler, who came off the bench, and junior defender Kurt Olsen (penalty kick) connected for the Mariners at Alumni Stadium. Junior goalkeeper Gary Poulin, who was credited with four saves, was in command of the penalty area the entire 90 minutes.
Last year, the Merchant Marine also stunned Drew in the semifinals, 2-1, as MacKenzie led the way with two goals after the Rangers had beaten the Mariners only two weeks prior.
This year's games certainly had its similarities.
On Oct. 19, the Mariners dropped a frustrating 1-0 home loss to Drew in a game in which they dominated, but could not break the Rangers' vaunted defense.
Asked what the difference was on Wednesday, Smolens replied, "We were real solid defensively and we finished well."
Drew entered the match having surrendered only six goals in its previous 18 matches before Kings Point exploded for three goals.
MacKenzie gave the Mariners all the scoring they needed at 27:29. Kessler, who possessed the ball at the top of the penalty area, started the scoring sequence by playing it wide to Kyle Arestivo. The freshman midfielder passed it to MacKenzie, who one-timed the ball past goalkeeper Rich Boland from 12 yards.
The teams traded close encounters midway through the second half. Poulin stopped a free kick headed to the upper corner ("That was big," Smolens said) and Kessler had a shot saved by Boland.
Poulin was solid in the net, either catching or knocking away everything that was kicked, headed or sent his way.
"He played very well," Smolens said. "He held the ball well under pressure."
A relentless Kessler wasn't finished, as he headed home a Ryan Silveira feed from eight yards for a two-goal advantage at 69:34.
Olsen capped off the game with a penalty kick at 70:51 after Kessler was taken down in the area.
Drew was supposed to host the game, but it was moved to a neutral site because there was no electricity at the Madison, N.J. school due to this past weekend's snowstorm.
"It was such a lovely day here," Smolens said. "Both teams could play better soccer today because it was so nice out and the conditions were so good, which was terrific.
The Mariners will try to pull off their second consecutive upset against Catholic on Saturday. The Cardinals defeated the Merchant Marines, 2-1, at Tomb Field on Oct. 8.
"We want to do everything we can to prepare and have a great effort against Catholic," Smolens said. "They're a good team. They played very well when we played them at our place. Our guys are playing well."
On Wednesday, the Mariners played better than well, their best game of the season.
Photo: Cody Kessler (left) had a hand in all three Mariners goals in their 3-0 victory over Drew.