They struggled to make the field, but now that they’re in, the members of the East Tennessee State soccer team figure they might as well stay around for a while.
The Bucs begin the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament today at 7 p.m. when they take on Jacksonville. The entire tournament is being played at ETSU’s home field of Summers-Taylor Stadium.
“All of us are real confident,” ETSU senior forward Aaron Schoenfeld said Tuesday. “We feel like if we play up to form we can beat any team. But, most important, we have to take one game at a time.”
The Bucs are the defending champions who almost didn’t qualify for the tournament. With 16 minutes remaining in the A-Sun season, they appeared out of luck. They trailed USC-Upstate 1-0 in a game where a loss or a tie would have ended their postseason hopes.
Instead, they rallied for two goals in the final 15 minutes to get the much-needed victory. And here they are, about to begin the defense of their first conference soccer championship as the sixth seed in the six-team field.
“Our backs have been against the wall for a while, and we’ve had to figure out how to get results,” ETSU coach Scott Calabrese said. “When you get to the postseason, it’s a new season. Everyone is fighting for their life. You just look at that one game and look at how can you win in that 90 minutes.
“It has not been pretty all the time. I feel like we have improved the last couple of weeks.”
Jacksonville (9-7-2) comes in as the third seed. The Dolphins beat ETSU 2-1 in Jacksonville on Oct. 9. The Bucs led 1-0 at halftime.
“They have some big boys in the back,” Schoenfeld said. “They’re a physical team. They’re gonna be up for it. We’re gonna be up for it. It’s gonna be a great game.”
Fifth-seeded Lipscomb (4-11-3) takes on No. 4 Mercer (8-7-3) in today’s other first-round game at 4 p.m. The winners move on to Friday’s semifinals, where top-seeded Florida Gulf Coast (10-5-2) awaits the Lipscomb-Mercer winner. No. 2 Stetson (10-5-3) will take on the ETSU-Jacksonville winner.
The final is set for Sunday at 1 p.m. The champion earns the A-Sun’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“It’s a clean slate for everybody,” ETSU sophomore forward David Geno said. “I feel the team’s been training well. This is the ultimate goal. From the start of the season, this is what we’ve been working for.”
Florida Gulf Coast coach Bob Butehorn was the A-Sun’s coach of the year this season, and forward Xavier Silva was the freshman of the year after putting in three game-winning goals.
Stetson boasts the league’s player of the year in Jonathan Mendoza, who led the A-Sun with 10 goals. His teammate Luis Ocejo, was chosen as the defensive player of the year.
ETSU won six of its first seven games, a start that got it ranked in the Top 25. Then when the A-Sun season began, the wins became more difficult to come by. The Bucs were 2-4-2 in conference games before winning the fateful regular-season finale against USC-Upstate.
One of the victories came against regular-season champion Florida Gulf Coast, its only league loss of the season.
Finding the back of the net has become increasingly difficult for the Bucs. They’ve been held to one goal or less in nine of their last 12 games.
“We’ve spent a lot of time working on how we’re gonna score,” Calabrese said. “I think we’ve encountered teams that have sat back a little bit on us and made it very difficult to break them down. If you’re not clinical when you get your two or three chances and convert them, it can hurt you.”