KINGS POINT, N.Y. – Just how close are the four teams in the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy's bracket at the NCAA Division III soccer tournament? Mariners coach Mike Smolens thinks the teams are so even that games could be decided by a minor play or a lack of focus.
The Mariners take on Rutgers University-Camden in a first-round game on Saturday. The winner will play the survivor of the match between Wesleyan (Conn.) and Misericordia in the second round on Sunday (starting times of this weekend's games have not been established yet).
"When you're in a bracket like the one we are – four quality teams – it's going to be something someone does really well at a little point or something that someone lets his guard down for a minute," Smolens said on Monday. "That's going to be the difference and we've got to be prepared for that. "
Preparation is the name of the game for the Mariners (10-6-1) this week. They don't know much about Rutgers-Camden, but they expect to learn about the Scarlet Raptors (16-2-2) between now the weekend.
"I know nothing about them," Smolens said. "Red, black and white are their colors. That's all I know. We'll find out more about them as the week progresses. I know we've played them before and we've played at their place years ago."
That's when Kings Point went to the Sweet Sixteen in 2002. "Coach [John] Fitzgerald and I have been there, so we know how to get there," Smolens added.
Here is a quick scouting report about Rutgers-Camden:
The Scarlet Raptors were ranked 10th in last week's National Soccer Coaches Association of American coaches poll (this week's rankings will come out on Tuesday.
They booked a berth in the NCAA's by capturing New Jersey Athletic Conference crown behind a 1-0 win over Montclair State University. Their attack and defense has been impressive, outscoring the opposition, 39-12, and allowing but two goals in the first half.
They are led by sophomore forward Mitch Grotti (16 goals, five assists) and senior goalkeeper Tim VanLew, who has anchored a strong defense, recording a 0.59 goals-against average and 10 shutouts.
"When you're in the NCAA's you know you're going to play quality teams," Smolens said. "We know Rutgers-Camden is a quality team. Our pod is a very strong one. All four teams are having strong years and they're quality teams. They'll be good matches."
Smolens admitted he was happy to learn that the game will be play on FieldTurf. The Mariners played only one game on natural grass this season -- the 1-0 win over host Catholic University in the Landmark Conference final on Saturday – and it took a while for them to adapt.
"We're glad to be playing on FieldTurf," he said. "That's the first thing looked at. If we had our choice, we would like to play on FieldTurf. So, that's good. So, there are less adjustments for our guys, the better for mostly what we've been doing this year."
Smolens also liked the fact the game is within striking distance of the Academy. Camden, N.J. is located just outside of Philadelphia.
"It's not so far away," he said. "We have a number of alums and we have families that live in the area, which is nice."
Virtually the entire Mariners team gathered in basement class room at O'Hara Hall to watch the 61-team tournament field being selected on the internet via a big screen at 1 p.m. on Monday. There was a lot of anticipation as the Mariners were not selected until the final group of four teams.
"Tension in the room there was little or none," Smolens said. "Compared to the last two years when we were waiting for an at-large bid, that's much harder. Then you're worried. We knew we were going to come up eventually. So that's a good thing.
"It is anticipation. I was thinking we might go to Stevens or go to Rutgers-Camden. Those were two teams that would host, and possibly Montclair. They're relatively in our vicinity. We feel fine with it. The most important thing is our team and our players are prepared for it."
Photo: Nick Cuellar (middle) and his Mariners teammates found a way to get past Drew in the Landmark Conference semifinals last week. Photo by Shawn Antonelli