West Chester’s defense fell apart with six minutes remaining in a PSAC semifinal game against Slippery Rock, and The Rock’s Stephen Donnelly took advantage by scoring a late winner that eliminated the Golden Rams men’s soccer team from the playoffs.
After an astonishing end to the regular season in which West Chester won its last five games in a row, expectations had grown for the team as they entered the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference playoffs. The Rams had climbed all the way up to second in the league standings, which allowed them to skip the quarterfinal round and travel directly to the campus of Mercyhurst University, where the final four for men’s soccer was being held.
It was the team’s first trip to the playoffs since 2007, and they wanted to keep the winning streak going in order to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“Executing in the final third, offensively, is something we have been talking a lot about,” coach Dan DeMasters told the university’s athletic website. “We give them a basic structure to work off of and just let them have fun and create off of that structure up front. We don’t want them to be tense.”
But despite DeMasters’ advice, the team struggled to score during its semifinal match against Slippery Rock.
Both teams created chances throughout the first half, but the goalkeepers played extremely well. The Rock’s Clayton Master made two saves while WCU’s Garrett Bleiler made three saves in the first 45 minutes. The Rams’ Cameron Scott came close to scoring with a header in the 33rd minute, but Master was there to save it.
The second half saw much of the same, at least until the very end. Master and Bleiler each came up with two more saves, and the game seemed to be heading to overtime at 0-0.
That all changed in the 84th minute, when a mishap by Bleiler led to a goal for Slippery Rock. Deep in West Chester territory, Donnelly stole the ball from Bleiler, and easily kicked the ball into the open net to give The Rock a valuable 1-0 lead.
Neil Gallagher and Taylor Eisenhauer each came close to a late equalizer for the Golden Rams, but Master was there to save each attempt on goal. Slippery Rock held on for the last few minutes to seal a victory and a place in Sunday’s PSAC Championship game, where they will face host Mercyhurst.
The loss brought an end to a highly successful season for West Chester. After ending the season with an 8-8-2 record, it is not likely that the team will earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament; the Rams only would have made it had they won the PSAC.
Nevertheless, the players can keep their heads held high after a solid season that saw them earn their highest win total since 2008 and their first playoff berth since 2007. Just a year ago, the team failed to win a single PSAC game, but this year the Rams finished 6-2-1 in the conference.
A number of important seniors will depart the team, including goalkeepers Bleiler and Kevin Marron, defenders Eisenhauer, Andrew Solimeo and Brett Snyder, and midfielders Gallagher, Jake Maxwell, and Peter Mais. But many key contributors to the team will remain. Forward Conor Malarney will be back next year, along with a trio of current sophomore midfielders in Tommy Ryan, Christian Benner, and Roberto Silva.
Last week’s Quad Athlete of the Week Kevin McCann will return as well. And this year’s crop of freshmen, including Alex Badulak and Alex Caplan, will surely be top players for years to come.
It remains unclear if suspended head coach Kendall Walkes will return to the sidelines next season.
One final note: after the loss to Slippery Rock, Snyder, who is a senior defender and criminal justice major, was named this year’s PSAC Champion Scholar for men’s soccer. Snyder has a 3.90 GPA, the highest of any player competing in the PSAC semifinals. He becomes the second WCU athlete to earn the honor; last year, women’s basketball player Meghan Kerrigan won the award, as well.
Joey Samuel is a fourth-year student majoring in political science and Spanish. He can be reached at JS719745@wcupa.edu.