The Shippensburg University men’s soccer team looks to be in their best form of the season just in time to face off with the No. 6 team in the country and Atlantic Region favorite Gannon University.
After two consecutive NCAA Division II tournament appearances SU suffered a surprisingly awful start to the season. The Raiders earned only one win and two draws in their first nine games.
Injuries and a porous backline seemed likely to wreck any hopes SU had of post-season play.
Gannon, coming off of a disappointing end to what had started as a promising 2011 campaign, responded with a brilliant beginning to the 2012 season. The Golden Knights went on an unstoppable run, winning their first nine games of the year.
Both SU and GU may remember the 10th game of its seasons as the turning points of the year. SU earned only its second win of the season — and its first in a month — via an impressive 6-1 demolition of Goldey-Beacom College. The Golden Knights was forced to endure its first loss of the year at the hands of Ashland University by a score of 3-1.
Including its win over Goldey-Beacom, SU has rattled off three wins in its last four games. The most impressive and recent being a 1-0 victory on Tuesday over a talented Mercyhurst squad.
Against East Stroudsburg University the Raiders were forced to overcome some questionable officiating as well as their opponents to earn a 4-1 victory. After the game, SU head coach Jeremy Spering said that he thought his team’s response was a signal of growing maturity.
“I think it is a sign that we are finally growing up,” Spering said. “You have to remember that at the end of the day these guys are 18, 19, 20 years old out there.”
As SU comes into the game against GU, it seems that the Golden Knights stumble into the match with some weaknesses finally revealed in their armor. GU has lost two of its last four games. Its most recent, a 2-1 home loss to California University of Pa., was played on Tuesday, leaving GU with little time to recover before traveling to SU on Saturday.
Still, Gannon will enter as the favorites and deservedly so. The Golden Knights have four players with five goals or more. Sophomore phenom, Robbie Bennett, leads the team in goals and assists with eight and five respectively. Their defense concedes on average less than a goal a game. GU often wears opponents down with its control of possession leaving opposition players to chase shadows most of the contest. As a result, GU is at its most dangerous in the second half as fatigue begins to set in. This year the Golden Knights have outscored opponents 23-7 in the second half, compared to their 6-6 scoreline against the opposition in the first half.
SU has the pieces in place to beat the Golden knights, but they will need several outstanding performances in certain areas of the field. The Raider defense will probably have to pack in and withstand GU’s storm of possession rather than match up in the midfield. This worked well for SU against Mercyhurst University as it was outshot 21-11 but still pulled out the 1-0 victory. Senior goalkeeper, Andrew Foran, will need to match his 10-save performance from that day and an SU defender will probably have to mark Bennett all game to keep the Raiders close. If SU can keep the ball away from Bennett, the Golden Knights will be forced to create chances without the biggest cog of their offense, but that is easier said than done.
Opportunities for the Raiders will come on the counter and set-pieces. Junior mid-fielder and captain Oli Templeton will be looking to send one of his signature through-passes to the flags quickly on the break. SU’s talented and deep pool of wingers, led by the team’s leading scorers Sam Talbot and Jonathan DeNicola, will look to run onto Templeton’s passes as they have all season. SU features some set-piece specialists like Templeton and Talbot so any foul within 25 yards of goal will lead to a shot. SU has been clinical in front of the net lately, and should be good for at least a goal in this game.
SU also needs its substitutes to play well. Ideally, the Raiders would like to rotate a lot of their players and stay fresh in the face of GU’s pressure. If SU’s subs are unable to match-up with GU, Spering will be forced to play with minimal substitutions. This would allow the Golden Knights a chance to exert their second half dominance over a fatigued Red Raider squad.
In the back of both teams’ minds will be last season’s 2-0 victory for SU. The win propelled a struggling SU team to the national tournament and deflated a rising Golden Knight squad. The Raiders will hope that history repeats itself.