The UNCG men’s soccer team’s run through the SoCon Tournament fell one win short of a championship on Sunday at Summers-Taylor Stadium in Johnson City, TN. The loss snapped a three-game win streak for the Spartans as they attempted to bring home a seventh conference tournament title.
The tournament kicked off this past Wednesday at different sites across the Southeast, and UNCG decided to make some noise. The Spartans entered the tournament with an underwhelming 6-8-2 record overall, which earned the team the fifth seed and a trip to Spartanburg, S.C. for a first round match against the fourth-seeded Wofford.
Freshman Jacob Planell had been on a tear for the Spartans and found the back of the net early in the game against Wofford. That goal ended up being the only one scored in the game for either team, but UNCG needed a tremendous effort to go along with it to preserve the victory. After Planell netted his goal in the fourth minute, the Spartans kept their opponent from scoring for the rest of the match.
After making their way into the semifinals for a third consecutive year, UNCG earned a Friday afternoon showdown with the top-seeded Mercer Bears. Once again, UNCG survived with a score of 1-0. It was another early goal for the Spartans, this time by Alex Henderson.
Mercer was not only the top seed, but also the defending SoCon champion after earning the automatic NCAA bid last season. UNCG Goalkeeper Jon Milligan made five saves throughout the match, helping to keep the tournament run alive. Mercer held the advantage in shots and shots on goal; however, UNCG simply outlasted the Bears to survive and advance.
The upset against the top seed set up a championship match in the Finals against third-seeded Furman. Going into the finals on Sunday, the Spartans had won their past 3 contests all by the same 1-0 final score. Furman finished the regular season with a 10-6-1 record (4-2 in conference). On their way into Sunday’s matchup, the Paladins disposed of Belmont in the first round and ETSU in the semifinals.
Many may have been skeptical of the Spartans’ chances of claiming a championship not so many days ago, but nonetheless, the opportunity presented itself in the title game. While Furman may still have been the higher seed, UNCG, coming into the season with high expectations and finally playing up to them, had to be perceived as the team with all the momentum coming into the match.
On Sunday afternoon, fans witnessed a slow start to the game and the middle of the first half was not kind to the Spartans, as they surrendered two goals in a short span before intermission. UNCG had a total of six shots in the first half, but were up against Furman’s Ben Hale, the Goalkeeper of the Year in the SoCon. Conor Sloan scored the final goal of the contest just before the final whistle to give Furman a 3-0 win and a conference championship. The Spartans finish the season with an overall record of 8-9-2.
It will be a tough pill to swallow, especially for those seniors who were hoping to turn a hot streak into a NCAA Tournament berth. Jon Milligan, Leeroy Maguraushe, Matteo Busio, Moises Gonzalez, Matt Mattis, Elyas Omar, Jesper Larsson, Austin Matthews, and Josh Masten may have finished their college careers, but they did it in style, with a truly special tournament run they won’t soon forget. If only a few plays could have broken their way, the Spartans could have another game on the horizon this week with even higher stakes.
It should not be overlooked that the Spartans overcame some serious struggles during a four-game losing stretch early in the season. They turned things around, capping it off with a performance they can be proud of. It should serve as a great lesson in facing adversity for the returning players. Hopefully, next year’s team will keep up the momentum. Unfortunately, we will have to wait another nine months to find out.