A chilly breeze was blowing through Summers-Taylor Stadium, but Scott Calabrese was still sweating.
And his team made him sweat all the way to the end.
Calabrese’s East Tennessee State soccer team kept its postseason hopes alive Saturday as Alesi Osorio and Aaron Schoenfeld scored less than three minutes apart in the second half in a 2-1 victory over USC-Upstate that earned the Bucs a spot in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament.
A loss or a tie would have ended ETSU’s postseason hopes and the Bucs would have been forced to watch six other teams play on their home field in a tournament they won last year.
“I’m not gonna lie ... I am absolutely relieved that we’ll be able to be here at our own tournament,” Calabrese said. “I think we would have been very embarrassed and I didn’t want that for our program. I didn’t want that for this university, to be hosting a tournament and not be in it.”
ETSU dominated the game, showing its desperation from the start. Upstate, knowing a tie would get it into the A-Sun tourney and knock the Bucs out, packed its defense back in hopes of keeping it close.
“What we really hoped for was to score first and hang on,” Upstate coach Greg Hooks said. “It was working for a while.”
The Bucs (9-5-3 overall, 3-4-1 A-Sun) controlled the ball almost exclusively in the first half. They took the game’s first 12 shots. All that was missing was a goal.
Then the unthinkable happened. In the 36th minute, on Upstate’s first foray into ETSU territory, the Spartans found the net. Michael Rankin-Byrne scored his first goal of the season when he broke behind the ETSU defense and knocked his team’s first shot home. It stunned a festive homecoming crowd of 1,045.
“That takes a little out of you,” Schoenfeld said. “You think sometimes ‘Maybe this isn’t your day.’ ”
By halftime, ETSU had out-shot the Spartans 17-4. The Bucs had three golden scoring opportunities, yet still had a big zero on the scoreboard.
“We’ve faced some bad situations this year,” ETSU goalkeeper Ryan Coulter said. “One-nil down when you’re dominating, that can frustrate any team.”
ETSU’s fortunes began to turn when it got the equalizer with 15:51 left in the game. Nate Hodges sent a ball into the penalty area and Schoenfeld flicked it into the air. Osorio ran onto the ball and banged it past Upstate goalkeeper Jason McCabe just inside the left post.
Moments later, the Bucs grabbed the lead when Blaike Woodruff’s cross was stopped by a diving McCabe, who briefly lost the handle on the ball. Schoenfeld seemingly over-ran the play, but managed to fight his momentum, reach back with his right foot and somehow get enough on the shot to score with 13:24 remaining.
“We’ve said all year that it doesn’t matter how it looks as long as it goes in,” Calabrese said. “They might not have been the prettiest goals, but they all count the same.”
Those two goals seemed to count more than most. They stopped the inevitable questions that would have dogged the Bucs throughout the offseason. They were nationally ranked a month ago yet were 16 minutes away from not qualifying for their conference tournament.
“There’s quite a bit of relief,” Schoenfeld said. “It’s kind of been on all our shoulders for the last week. None of us wanted to go out like that.”
Schoenfeld’s goal was his seventh of the season, tying him with David Geno for the team lead. They share the school’s single-season record.
The Spartans went on the attack once they fell behind, and they continued to the pressure on ETSU’s defense right until the end. Their last gasp came on a throw-in near the Bucs’ goal. When the ball nestled safely in Coulter’s arms with nine seconds left, he knew it was over.
“Just the emotion that comes out, it’s like no other,” Coulter said. “It’s a great feeling to get a chance to retain our title, and for me, it’s my first try at some A-Sun silverware. I think we’re gonna be up for it.”
ETSU wound up out-shooting Upstate 30-10.
“It’s tough,” said Hooks, whose team was trying to earn it first A-Sun tourney berth. “I told my team that this is a good team they have here. They had some strange things happen to them to be in this situation, but they are one of the better teams in our conference.”
The Bucs will learn their seeding in the tournament today. If Belmont and Mercer tie today, the Bucs will be seeded fifth. Should either of those teams win, ETSU gets the No. 6 seed.
Either way, ETSU will play on the tournament’s first night, Wednesday, Nov. 9. The semifinals are set for Nov. 11 with the championship game scheduled for Nov. 13. The entire tournament will be played at Summers-Taylor Stadium.