Williams to face NCAA power


WILLIAMSTOWN -- Williams College men's soccer coach Mike Russo admitted that he wasn't thinking about an NCAA Division III Final Four trip when the 2009 season started.

But after a loss to Trinity, the veteran head coach said he saw things change for his team.

"The boys got together after the game," Russo recalled earlier this week. "We outshot Trinity [32-8] and lost 3-0. That was a turning point. It got us going. From that point until [a 1-0 loss] to Middlebury, we played very well."

That was the only other loss the Ephs suffered in 2009, and that put them on the road to the Final Four -- a road that ends in San Antonio, Texas, this weekend.

Williams is one of four men's teams playing in the Division III Final Four that begins Friday. The Ephs (16-2-3) will face Messiah College (22-1-0) in the first game at 6 p.m. Eastern time.

The game features two of the top 10 Division III soccer programs in the nation. Messiah was ranked No. 1 and Williams was ranked sixth in the final National Soccer Coaches Association of America national D-III poll.

It's a rare double-double for the Grantham, Pa. school as its women's team is also ranked No. 1 nationally.

Russo, in his 31st year at Williams, said he knows his team will be in for quite a challenge on Friday night.

"They've won six of the last eight [national titles], they must do something right," he said. "They're a very strong team and they play very well."

The Falcons won NCAA titles in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008. They also finished third three times.

The road to Messiah's 2006 championship came through Williamstown. The Falcons beat Williams 4-2 on penalty kicks after the game ended 0-0. The key save of the penalty kick session came when Messiah goalie Dustin Shambach guessed correctly and stopped the shot by Williams' John Hillman.

Brad McCarty is Messiah's first-year head coach. He graduated from Messiah in 1993, has been an assistant for eight years and was on the sideline for that 2006 thriller.

And while Messiah has a lengthy history of Final Four appearances, the first-year coach said there was no expectation of getting back there.

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"We don't ever assume anything," said McCarty, when reached at his office before the Falcons left for Texas. "We don't come into a season saying ‘Lets go to the Final Four.' What I do know, is the players and the coaching staff are committed to each other and the ideals of the program. When players are committed to the program and to each other, good things happen."

The Falcons enter play on a 13-game winning streak. The only loss they suffered this year came on Oct. 7, when they fell 2-0 at York College. That's the same York College that Williams beat on penalty kicks in the tournament's round of 16 back on Nov. 21. The teams have one other opponent in common, Christopher Newport University. Messiah beat Chris-topher Newport 2-1 in overtime on Sept. 11, while Williams beat Christopher Newport on penalty kicks in the regional final on Nov. 22 in York, Pa.

"Williams is a storied program with a lot of tradition," said McCarty. "They're well-coached and they have a deep talent pool. They have a large number of big, skilled soccer players. That allows them to be effective on both sides of the ball."

Messiah scores almost four goals a game, with 90 total goals this year. The team gives up just 0.69 goals per contest. Junior midfielder Geoff Pezon is his team's top scorer with 15 goals and a team-high 18 assists for 48 points. Freshman forward Joshua Wood leads Messiah with 19 goals, while junior midfielder Nick Thompson has 17 goals.

Williams, on the other hand, has scored only 50 goals. The Ephs' top scorer is junior forward Charles Romero, who has 12 goals and six assists.

Romero is one of 13 different Ephs to have put the ball into the net, and he might be one of the bigger surprises.

In two previous seasons, Romero had registered only one assist. He was in all 34 games Williams played in those two years and had an assist in his freshman season. Romero had 39 shots in two years and landed only six on goal. This year has been completely different for the first Eph to score more than 10 goals since Patrick Huffer's 14 in 2006.

"He worked very hard over the summer," Russo said. "He became much more confident. That's key to anyone's performance. He was getting in on goal and not finishing his chances. This year he is."

Williams enters the Final Four coming off consecutive shootout victories. Russo does things a little differently in the shootout period, as regular keeper Andrew Graham takes a seat, and freshman Than Finan from Williamstown takes over.

"Our goalkeeping coach [Matt Gnall] and I decided" on the rotation, said Russo. "Than is very good at stopping penalties. All of our goalkeepers are good. He is very good."

Graham has, in the opinion of his coach "definitely earned the No. 1 goalkeeper spot. He has been very good in the air and he's good with crosses in the box."

One potential advantage Will-iams might have this weekend is that the Ephs are traveling. That's something they've done throughout the NCAA Tournament. Williams beat Husson and RPI in the first round at Troy, N.Y., and then won twice in Pennsylvania.

To reach Howard Herman: hherman@berkshireeagle.com, (413) 496-6253.


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