KINGS POINT, N.Y. – The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy men's soccer team recently completed another successful season on a high note.
The Mariners caught fire at the right time, peaking down the stretch. They clinched a berth in the Landmark Conference playoffs and were forced to win their conference semifinal and final matches on the road – against teams who had bested them at home earlier in the season.
The Merchant Marines earned their third consecutive berth – fifth overall -- in the NCAA Division III soccer tournament before losing to Rutgers-Camden in a first-round encounter.
"We certainly did peak at the right time," head coach Mike Smolens said.
Merchant Marine (11-7-1) also recorded at least 10 wins for the 21st consecutive year in Smolens' 22 seasons at the Academy. In the ever-changing soccer world, the Mariners have been one of the most consistent teams over the past two decades.
The Mariners reached the conference tournament the hard way, winning three consecutive road matches.
They started with a 2-1 overtime win at Susquehanna University on Oct. 22. They followed that up with a 3-0 victory over second-seeded Drew University at Kean College in New Jersey on Nov. 2 and a 1-0 triumph over top-seed Catholic in Washington D.C., Nov. 5 in front of Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood and Maritime Administrator David Matsuda, who attended the match and helped cheer on the team, along with a strong contingent of D.C. area alumni and family.
The Merchant Marines returned to Jersey to take on Rutgers-Camden in the NCAAs and dropped a 4-2 decision on Nov. 12.
"The coaches and players were disappointed in losing to a very strong Rutgers-Camden team," Smolens said. "We played a terrific match against them. We outshot them, but we couldn't convert enough of our chances.
"We felt good about the improvement we made as a team as the season went on."
The Mariners' depth could not have been tested more due to injuries to several key players. Smolens and associate head coach John Fitzgerald had a core of players that battled hard not only in games, but in practice as well. That made the coaches' decision on whom to start that much more difficult. And, Smolens and Fitzgerald were not afraid of mixing up the lineup.
"That's something we stressed," Smolens said. "Hard work will be rewarded and certainly our players came through, that's for sure."
For the second season in a row, junior Kurt Olsen was named the Landmark's top defender. Olsen led the Mariners to five first-team conference selections; along with junior goalkeeper Gary Poulin, senior defender Hollis Irvine, senior midfielder Casey Desiderio and junior forward Ryan Silveira.
Senior Andrew MacKenzie was selected to the second team as a midfielder.
Besides Desiderio and MacKenzie, players who played key roles were midfielders Michael Dunn (senior), Nick Cuellar (sophomore), Kevin Pfeil (sophomore), Kyle Arestivo (freshman) and Abboss Rezaie (freshman).
While Silveira was the focal point, also making vital contributions were forwards Cody Kessler (junior), Tim Anthone (sophomore), Tanner Nestler (sophomore), Sam Reed (sophomore) and Nick Vogel (freshman).
"They came through when called upon and we're pleased with the progress they made," Smolens said.
Smolens also singled out praise for junior goalkeeper Garrett Reinert, who started the opening five games while Poulin, a three-year starter, was recuperating from his broken leg.
The Mariners will lose six seniors who play key roles in gaining three consecutive NCAA tournament berths and remained unbeaten agaisnt rival Coast Guard since 1999. But Smolens will have several key players returning and he hopes for a strong recruiting class to chip in as well.
"With a strong senior group graduating, we're looking for our current players to step up and have a bigger role next year," Smolens said. "And with some strong recruits, we look forward to another excellent season. I can't wait for the season to start."