There were five goals scored during the Harvard men’s soccer team’s matchup with Central Connecticut State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Ohiri Field on Saturday.
But the three most important shots were ones that didn’t go in.
Trailing 3-2 with 15 seconds remaining, the Crimson (12-4-2) had a corner kick opportunity. Sophomore Kwaku Nyamekye put the service on net, but it was deflected by Blue Devils goalie Paul Armstrong to Harvard co-captain Matt Hoff, open at the far post. From eight yards out, Hoff cranked the would-be game-tying shot. It flew past the diving CCSU defenders and snuck over Armstrong’s fingertips, but instead of swooshing into the back of the net the ball ricocheted off the underside of the crossbar and fell into traffic in front of the goal.
Before the clock finally ran out, junior Mike Fucito collected the ball and drilled one last shot; it too was deflected by Armstrong.
“I struck it well, but it hit off the crossbar,” Hoff said. “I was a little unlucky in that way.”
“We got a little bit of luck there [in the final seconds],” said Blue Devils tri-captain David Tyrie. “But the way we have worked this season I think we deserve it.”
In a 2-1 hole with just over 13 minutes left in the second half, the Crimson pulled even when freshman Alex Chi passed to sophomore Andre’ Akpan near the top of the CCSU 18-yard box. With no defenders stepping up to challenge the shot, Akpan fired a rocket that stayed low and crashed into the right side netting.
“Akpan up front is tremendously dangerous,” said Blue Devils coach Shaun Green. “That goal he scored was a phenomenal goal.”
But CCSU (9-8-3), which at one point this season had an overall record of 2-8-2, won five straight conference games just to make it to the Northeast Conference tournament, and upset the top two seeds en route to winning the tournament and qualifying for NCAA’s, was not about to let the game slip away.
With six minutes remaining, the Blue Devils were awarded a free kick from about 40 yards out. Midfielder Eddie Floyd lofted a service that got over Nyamekye’s head and bounced near the Harvard goal post. CCSU junior midfielder Yan Klukowski was the first one there and headed it in for the winning goal.
“It was very scrappy in there,” said senior co-captain and goalkeeper Adam Hahn. “They were maybe trying to win those second balls a little bit harder than we were today.”
The Blue Devils tallied the game’s first goal in the 22nd minute, but the Crimson stayed poised and continued to move the ball. That movement set up the equalizer in the 37th minute, when junior Marcel Perl, normally a defender but playing forward on Saturday, received a pass from the midfield and one-touched a ball to junior John Stamatis as he cut past him. Stamatis took a forward touch and then teed up a 25-yard drive into the top corner of the net that made it 1-1.
“He was all over the field, moving the ball precisely,” Harvard coach John Kerr said of Stamatis. “I thought he had a wonderful game distributing the ball and being active.”
Ultimately it was not enough to keep CCSU from running off with the program’s first-ever win in the NCAA Tournament.
“Anything you do in life...you always look for some kind of validation,” Green said. “What it means to us beating Harvard today is validation for [the Blue Devils’] sweat equity, their investment, and their time.”
CCSU moves on to face 16th seed Tulsa in the second round on Wednesday.
For the Crimson, which failed to repeat as Ivy League champions but still earned an at-large bid and home-field advantage based on its No. 15 ranking, the defeat provided the squad’s second straight early-round exit from the NCAA Tournament.
—Staff writer Julia R. Senior can be reached at email@example.com.