Mariners are accustomed playing with their backs to the wall
KINGS POINT, N.Y. -- The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy soccer team could not have picked a better time to go on a roll.
After going through a difficult regular season laced with teams that participated in last year's NCAA Division III tournament or were ranked in polls, the Mariners have found themselves and then some in their past three matches -- all of which have been on the road.
It began with a 2-1 overtime win at Susquehanna University on Oct. 22, which clinched a spot in the Landmark Conference tournament. It continued with a 3-0 triumph over Drew University in the semifinals on Nov. 2 and 1-0 victory over Catholic University three days later.
The Mariners (11-6-1) hope continue their streak against Rutgers University-Camden (16-2-2), ranked ninth in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll, in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Camden, N.J. at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Junior goalkeeper Gary Poulin felt the fact USMMA was forced to win or go home in all those matches helped.
"We knew we had to win to make sure we could make the playoffs," he said about the Susquehanna encounter. "It was the turning point there. The rest of the season was, 'What can we fix? What can we fix, trying to improve on our game? We got to that point, it was now or never. Everyone's got to come together and play the best soccer that we can play because if we don't win day, the season's over. I think that changed the mentality. From that game on, that's what has helped us win those games and playing the best soccer we've played so far this season."
Because the Mariners' backs were to the wall in all three matches, head coach Mike Smolens had told the team that it had three one-game seasons ahead of itself, starting with Susquehanna.
"We've had our own single elimination tournament the last three matches," he said. "So, I think we're used to the pressure of playing in that kind of environment, which is good. Hopefully, we're peaking at the right time. We have had a couple of players who have come through with some nice goals, which is good for us. Defensively, we have been more solid the past three matches."
Last season the Mariners reached the Elite Eight. They are hopeful of duplicating that feat in this tournament.
The biggest thing that helped us last year was that we went into every game knowing that we could win the game," Poulin said. "It didn't matter who we were playing, we were going to win this game. We're going to play our game and play harder than anybody else. That's the attitude we need to have if we want to go far again."
And what does Poulin think about the Merchant Marine's chances this year?
"I definitely think it's realistic to say we can make it to the final four," he said.
"We only lost three players from last year. Now we're starting to see the same drive that we saw from last year, along with a lot of talent that we have this year. Even more so this year than last year, we have a lot of guys coming off the bench, new guys starting every game, guys coming off the bench and doing a good job. There's a lot of competition within the team, helping everyone get better."
Smolens has been encouraged by the improved play by all platoons, particularly the defense -- team and in the back.
"We've been solid defensively," he said. "When you're solid defensively, you can stay in games, that's for sure. You never know what's going to happen as far as injuries and things. The good thing is we've had different players in the lineup have picked up where other guys have been hurt all year long. And even last week, some of our players were not at 100 percent and some of our guys have stepped up. We need to make sure that people are prepared for that. We're going to take. This is obviously coach talk. We're going to take it one game at a time. Prepare for Rutgers-Camden, be ready for that and then we'll worry whether it's Wesleyan or Misericordia. We'll worry about it then."
Of course, Rutgers-Camden might have something to say about the Mariners' aspirations.
"I definitely think we have a good matchup for the first round," Poulin said.
Junior forward Cody Kessler agreed.
"It's going to be a really good game," he said. "There are some teams that we only beat my one or two goals that they beat by two or three goals. We've been playing well lately. I think we're going to have to keep playing our game and come up hard.
Earlier this week, Smolens said that the competition and teams in the NCAAs were so close that games will be decided by one moment, sometimes by sides that keep or lose their focus.
"There's been so many games that I have played that have been like that. You have two teams that are so close together in skill and everything about the game of soccer," Kessler said. "A small time when the defense doesn't step up when they need to or someone doesn't get back when they're supposed to. A team will capitalize on that. You notice that more so in college soccer than in high school and club. From what I've seen in our bracket – the four teams – that's what it will come down to – if you're team can do what they need to do, you won't have any problems."