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November 5, 2011

Mariners seek yet another Landmark moment, soccer title

KINGS POINT, N.Y. – The Mariners will vie for their second Landmark Conference upset in four days on Saturday, when they face Catholic University for the league championship.

At stake for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (10-6-1) is a berth in the NCAA Division III soccer tournament, which kicks off next week.

Head coach Mike Smolens isn't looking that far ahead. He obviously is much more concerned about the 2:30 p.m. encounter against the top-seeded Cardinals in Washington, D.C.

"They're a good team," he said. "The first time we played them was a tough match. We were disappointed to lose. They're a quality team that's well coached. They've played big games as we have. It will take a terrific effort to beat them."

The Mariners are trying to duplicate last season's results, when they were unable to beat semifinal rivals during the regular season, but bounced back with two big wins in the conference tournament to secure an NCAA berth.

The Cardinals (14-3-1) have been virtually invincible at home with a 7-1-1 record. Their only blemishes were a 3-2 overtime loss to Rutgers-Camden on Sept. 19 and a 1-1 draw that clinched the regular-season Landmark crown on Oct. 29.

They are paced by Mike Brennan, the Landmark offensive player of the year, with 13 goals and three assists. Goalkeeper Torsten Meuschke has a 1.05 goals-against average in 12 games and 10 starts. The Cardinals have four shutouts – two at home, so they can be scored upon. How many times is a different matter.

Catholic defeated the Mariners at home on Oct. 8, recording a 2-1 win as Ben Fleri scored in the game-winner in the 65th minute. Brennan had given the visitors the lead, but defender Hollis Irvine equalized.

The Cardinals are directed by former Mariners assistant coach Travis Beauchamp, who served under Smolens for three seasons. He was a member of the coaching staff when it was honored with the Skyline Conference coaching staff of the year award.

"They've got quality players and they're well coached," Smolens said. "It's going to take a good effort to beat them. I don't think they're going to throw anything so outlandish. They're not going to change what they've been doing all year. And we're not going to change what we've been doing. It's just a matter of finishing your opportunities and being solid defensively."

On Wednesday, the third-seeded Mariners stunned No. 2 Drew University, 3-0, at Kean University in Union, N.J. The game was played at a neutral site because Drew did not have electricity in Madison, N.J. due to last weekend's fall snowstorm.

"We finished well in the game," Smolens said. "So that's something haven't been too consistent. We haven't been able to do too much. We scored a couple of nice goals, which was good. It was obviously a pressure situation, which our guys have done before, playing in matches like that. So we're pleased we've come through. But for us, anything we've done in the past doesn't make a difference. It's what we do on Saturday."

Substitute junior forward Cody Kessler enjoyed his best game of the season, having a hand, well, actually a foot and a head, in all three Mariners goals. Kessler, who entered the game with two goals this season, set up the first goal by Andrew MacKenzie and scored the second off a header. He was fouled in the penalty area as Kurt Olsen converted the ensuing penalty kick.

"He had a very good year last year," Smolens said. "Whether it was due to injuries or other things – he's a guy who broke his wrist at the beginning of the year. There's no doubt he played his best game of the year. Last year he scored a number of big goals for us. This year he's been and the coaches have been disappointed in the season. He came through for us in a big way, which was great."