Nov. 21, 2011
For the better part of two decades, the barrier stood staring back at those who wore the blue and white uniforms of the Villanova Men's Soccer program. It had grown from a modest footnote in the 1990s into a full-blown demon that seemed to become crueler with each passing year.
Fact was, for all the regular season strides made in the recent past, Villanova was 0-9-2 in the BIG EAST Championship entering the 2011 event. Not once, in 11 attempts, had it moved past its first outing (Villanova did make four appearances in the BIG EAST semifinals in the late 1980's and early 1990's when it was a four-school tourney).
From 2003-10, Villanova appeared in seven of the eight BIG EAST playoffs contested. It played extra time on three occasions, falling at St. John's in overtime in '03 and earning draws against Georgetown in both '04 and '05, only to be eliminated in the round of penalty kicks. From 2008-10, it was defeated by Providence, despite twice holding second half leads. In '09, it was ousted on a spectacular Friar shot from just inside the midfield line late in the second half of a 1-1 tie.
"It grew from a monkey on our back," states head coach Tom Carlin, "to a gorilla on our back. It was huge. When our guys went into those games, they were thinking about it. And any time you are thinking about that kind of thing as a player, you are going to play not to lose. When that happens, you get what happens against Providence two years ago, when they score two goals in the last nine minutes."
Having wrestled with that burden for all of his four seasons as the Wildcats head coach, Carlin understood that any effort to remove it had to begin internally.
"At the beginning of the year we said that it's not when, it's now," he says. "The breakthrough was going to come now. This group believed in that. They believed in themselves and this team."
On the surface, 2011 would have appeared to be an unlikely campaign in which to remove the colossus. Injuries had been a constant issue through the season, costing the squad a pair of linchpin seniors, goalie Chris Bresnahan and center back Chris Christian. The Wildcats dropped two of their final three regular season games, losing a chance to host a post-season game in a bizarre fall snowstorm on Oct. 29 in a 2-0 defeat to Louisville.
So it was that Villanova entered the post-season as the No. 5 seed in the Red Division with a 6-8-4 record. It would need to unburden itself far from the Main Line, at No. 18/19 Notre Dame.
"We went to Notre Dame with a great attitude," notes Carlin, "and as the game went on we really started to get a bite on it. It wasn't the mentality of the past where we worried about the possibility of losing it. The guys believed this was different and the mindset was contagious."
Villanova stunned the Irish 1-0 on Nov. 3. Aaron Dennis scored the first half goal and the Wildcats then effectively stymied the potent Notre Dame attack, perhaps costing the Fighting Irish an NCAA Tournament bid in the process. From there it was on to No. 5 ranked USF and the `Cats used a nearly identical blueprint, scoring early on a Kyle Soroka goal and then leaning on its back line and goalkeeper John Fogarty to make the lead hold up in a 1-0 triumph.
The ride concluded in the semi-finals at Red Bull Arena against St. John's, when the Red Storm broke a scoreless tie in the 78th minute and went on to post a 2-0 win. But the good vibes of the month of November figure to endure for some time.
When 2012 begins, the gorilla will long since have left the building.
As he reflects today, Carlin's mind drifts back to a visit he made to the 2009 BIG EAST Championship in West Virginia. Only eight days removed from the disappointment of the late loss to Providence, Carlin accompanied then senior Mike Seamon to the pre-tourney banquet.
"Mike said to me that night, `Coach, this is awesome. The guys really need to see this,'" Carlin recalls. "Before the Notre Dame game this year, I told our guys that this Red Bull experience is special. We tried to have them envision what it all was going to be like. The truth is, though, that you can really only understand that by being there."
For the first time, Villanova saw it all up close. It was a tangible benefit of success that Carlin believes can help the Wildcats moving forward.
"The guys have an appetite for it now," Carlin states. "Before it was a cuisine they had never tasted. Once you get that taste for it, it makes you hungrier for more. I think that's what the Red Bull experience did for us. It gave us a sense for what the Big East Tournament and a national tournament look like. The Big East does a tremendous job in making it feel like an NCAA Tournament game."
Villanova will welcome back a minimum of nine starters from its late-season lineup in 2012. Senior back Kevin Garcia graduates in the spring and his presence will be missed on the outside. Goalkeeper John Fogarty, who thrived in Bresnahan's absence, retains another year of eligibility and could return as a graduate student. Key reserve Matt Margiotta also departs.
"We will have most of this group back and this breakthrough can only help us," states Carlin.
Carlin lauded the play of his back line down the stretch, which included center backs Kyle McCarthy and William Cason along with Garcia and Ryan Whalen on the outside. The Wildcats established a new school record this season with nine shutouts, including a pair in the playoffs.
Fogarty, meanwhile, was steady throughout and spectacular when called upon to make big saves.
"To able to shut down proven scorers like Ryan Finley of Notre Dame and Dom Dwyer of USF, your center backs have to be playing at a very high level," Carlin notes. "Kyle and Will were terrific and Fogarty really controlled the ball in the air in front of our goal."
What also emerged in the post-season was the excellent chemistry between Soroka and sophomore Dylan Renna up front. It was Renna's work along the sideline that set up Dennis' goal in the Notre Dame win and Soroka's score was the difference at USF. The pair's skill gave the Wildcats weapons that its foes had to account for.
Carlin, though, acknowledges that a bit more consistency and cohesion in the regular season may have allowed Villanova to deliver another first in program history: one of the 48 NCAA Tournament berths.
"The finish was good and I think the first playoff win adds a lot of confidence for the guys," he notes. "It feels like we have arrived. Now the next step is to focus on the full body of work for next year because our body of work this year was inconsistent. We feel we underachieved throughout the course of the regular season.
"It's bittersweet. It's a unique perspective because you have the highs from the end of the season and the disappointment of the beginning and the middle of the season. That's where we're at right now. We're in a good spot mentally and will have most of our lineup back next year. We feel we can take another step toward becoming a national contender."
Of course, the lengthy roll call of injured Wildcats no doubt contributed to the ups and downs. The squad was forced to adjust on the fly to the absence of long-time central back fixture Christian, who was lost after seven games to a torn ACL. Renna had to fight his way back from an off-season that included a pair of surgeries on his hip and goalie Bresnahan, who had started 56 of the team's previous 57 games in goal, missed the full season after his own hip surgery.
"The (injuries) just got us out of sorts," Carlin says. "We could never get into a flow. We were juggling rotations and formations, moving people around. We began having to depend on freshmen and freshmen are typically inconsistent. Through the course of doing that, we weren't getting results.
"I don't know that it was the reason why we were losing games, but it certainly had something to do with it."
Through it all, though, a resolve emerged that lifted Villanova before it was too late. In the process, the `Cats finally removed a persistent barrier to what they believe will be their ultimate destination.
"This group," says Carlin, "was resilient."
And because it was, the Wildcats can now take clear aim at their dreams.