Four teams are in San Antonio this weekend to battle for an NCAA Division III men's soccer championship. Three of them are ranked in the final regular-season National Soccer Coaches Association of America Division III national poll.
The fourth team, Williams, entered the weekend unranked, but still standing as the Ephs vie for a second national championship.
Coach Mike Russo's team will have its hands full right off the bat, as the Ephs will play defending champion Messiah (20-1-1) tonight at 8:30 EDT. Messiah enters the game ranked fourth in the national poll. The other game features third-ranked Rutgers-Camden (22-0-2) and No. 6 Loras College (19-1-3) of Dubuque, Iowa.
This marks Williams sixth appearance in the Final Four, and the Ephs are looking to win a second Division III national title. Williams beat Methodist 2-1 at Cole Field back in 1995. Two years earlier, UC-San Diego scored a 1-0 win over the Ephs at Cole to claim the Division III title.
The Ephs enter the Final Four with a 15-6 record, a mark that stands out because the other three teams have lost a combined two games between them.
The last time Williams and Messiah played each other in a national semifinal was 2009, the first year the NCAA moved the tournament to Texas. In that game, Messiah goalkeeper Jared Clugston made four first-half saves in 45 minutes that were dominated by the Ephs. However, the Falcons led 1-0 at halftime and never trailed.
"I thought [Williams was] brilliant in the first half," Messiah coach Brad McCarty said at the time. "I thought we were fortunate to go into halftime with a 1-0 lead."
Trevor Lee's goal at 32:40 put Messiah ahead to stay.
"I would say it's frustrating, but it's the game of soccer," Williams coach Mike Russo said that day. "I've coached a long time. There are games that you control and don't put one in, and there are those that you find that one chance and take advantage."
To describe the Falcons as the premier program in Division III soccer would be spot on. Since 2000, Messiah has won nine national championships. They had runs of three straight from 2004-06 and from 2008-10. Their most recent run of national titles was interrupted by Ohio Wesleyan in 2012.
McCarty is in his fifth season at Messiah and he has a gaudy record of 110-4-4. The Falcons enter the Final Four on a 15-game unbeaten streak (14-0-1).
The Falcons can score a lot. They have two double-figure goal scorers in Joshua Wood (21 goals) and Jeremy Payne (15). Jack Thompson has a team-best 15 assists.
Messiah's offense will be a big challenge for a Williams defense that has been outstanding in the postseason.
In four NCAA tournament games, Williams has given up one goal. That was scored by Western New England's Brandon Bolger in the first half of a 4-1 win by the Ephs.
Williams goalie Peter Morrell has been perfect since giving up that goal, and has a shutout streak of 310 minutes, 19 seconds. The senior shut out Brandeis 2-0 in the Sweet 16 and then shut out Amherst 1-0 for the right to get to Texas.
Morrell will be starting his 22nd game, and has a 0.81 goals against average.
The Ephs have scored only 35 goals all season, but have put 11 in the net in the NCAA tournament, so they're getting their offense going at the right time. Matt Muralles leads the Ephs with 7 goals, while defender Chris Conder has scored the game-winning goals against Brandeis and Amherst.