Fairfield Now - Spring 2007
Victory on a National Stage
By Jack Jones, M.A.'01 / Director of Sports Information
Eyebrows come in many different styles and shapes. Some are bushy, while others are plucked. Some are trimmed, while others are painted. Regardless of their style or shape, however, eyebrows across the country were raised in surprise when news spread of the Fairfield's men's soccer team victory over the University of Connecticut (UConn) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
While surprising to most sports fans, a good number of soccer purists realized that the Stags' win over the Huskies was not as unlikely as it seemed. In fact, ESPN's website had labeled Fairfield as the team most likely to pull an upset in the first round of the tournament. Many poll watchers had become familiar with Head Coach Carl Rees and his lads over the course of the season by watching the team climb the national rankings each week.
Not only did men's soccer capture the MAAC trophy, but the team went on to defeat UConn in the NCAA Tournament.
Over the last decade, the Stags established a regular residence in the national polls under Rees, who developed Fairfield into a highly respected program. While this year's team took pride in its status in the national poll, it wanted to make an indelible mark in Fairfield athletic history.
"We (the senior class) felt this was the chance to leave our mark on the program, defender Mike Troy '07 says. "We established several firsts during my time here, like being the first (men's soccer) team to post an unbeaten conference record (2005). But we wanted our legacy to include being Fairfield's first team to win an NCAA Division I Tournament game."
Before the team could earn its ticket to the NCAA Tournament, it first had to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Championship and the automatic bid that went with the title. After winning their second straight MAAC regular-season title with a 7-2 record, the Stags entered the MAAC Tournament with the number one seeding in hand and home field advantage. The team avenged one of its regular-season losses with a 3-0 win over Loyola College in the semifinals, which set up a title tilt against St. Peter's College in front of a national audience, courtesy of ESPNU. The Stags captured their second MAAC Championship with a 1-0 win over the Peacocks.
"Winning the MAAC Championship was a credit to our seniors," says Rees. "They put their heart and soul into this program for four years, and to see that hard work and dedication pay off is certainly rewarding for me and for the University community."
|Feet a-flying, Alex Cunliffe '07 corkscrews for position against a St. Peter's opponent in the MAAC Championship game.|
Fairfield learned the next day that it would stay in state for a first-round game against UConn the following Saturday. While the Stags had never defeated the Huskies, Rees remembered the last time the two teams met during an exhibition game. That contest resulted in a draw.
"UConn is a quality program and we knew it would not be an easy game for us, especially on the road," says Coach Rees. "But we were not going up to Storrs thinking that we could not win. It was actually quite the opposite. We went up there thinking that not only could we win this game, but that we would win this game."
The University community shared Coach Rees's belief that the Stags could knock off their intra-state opponent. So much so that three buses of fans headed north for the game - with painted faces, banners, and pom poms. And the fans were not disappointed, as Fairfield posted a 2-1 win over its hosts, firmly establishing the legacy that the senior class so wanted to leave behind.
And since it was to be the senior's legacy, it was only fitting that a senior provide the winning margin. Jimmy Gaughan '07 scored his first goal of the season when he accepted a pass from Mike Lentine '07 just inside the box, and pushed a shot underneath the charging UConn goalkeeper in the 82nd minute.
"It's a great feeling to be able to contribute to a win of this magnitude," Gaughan said post-game. "That's what made this team so special, the fact that someone different stepped up and made a big play in each game. Against UConn, it just happened to be my day."
Although the season came to an end four days later with a second-round loss to 20th-ranked Towson University, the Stags proved that they belong on the national stage. Reaching that level was certainly a result of the team's hard work, but Coach Rees is quick to point out that there were other factors involved.
"We could not have accomplished any of this success without the commitment and support of the University," Rees says. "In Fr. von Arx (president), Mark Reed (vice president for student affairs), and Gene Doris (athletic director), we have an administration that provides our student athletes with the best facilities and the best opportunity to succeed, both on the field and the classroom."
With back-to-back regular-season conference titles, a conference tournament title, and an NCAA Tournament victory, Coach Rees and his lads look forward not only to the challenges of building upon their success next year, but also to raising a few more eyebrows.