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Xavier Magazine | November 20, 2017

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Sweet Victory

Sweet Victory
By Mike Rutledge

Men’s Soccer Scores Big with First-Ever NCAA Tournament Home Game

In the cold November evening, the fans are on their feet and, on this Thursday, Nov. 20, Matt Vasquenza is ready to make history.

After hundreds of hours of training and sweating and imagining what could be, he and his teammates know it often comes down to a matter of instant reactions to make longtime dreams come true.

The pivotal moment arrives in the second overtime of Xavier’s match against Monmouth. It’s already a history-maker—the first time the men’s soccer team has ever hosted an NCAA Tournament game at home. The Soccer Complex is dressed for the occasion, its hillside stands packed with blue-and-white clad fans and Xavier banners draped around the field.

The teams are tied at one goal each, but Xavier is dominating. Jalen Brown runs the left flank toward the goal, hunkering down to keep possession while his teammates catch up. He flicks a short pass to Vasquenza, just 15 yards from the left post. Vasquenza fires quickly, but the Monmouth goalie bats it back. Vasquenza extends his leg and pokes the ball with a toe toward a teammate, who shoots. The ball is blocked and returned again to Vasquenza.

The penalty box is now filled with seven defenders and the goalie, all dressed in white. It looks impossible, but Vasquenza taps it a couple of times before passing it with his left. The ball rolls slowly across the goal to an open Alex Ridsdale. He pounces, a blue streak in a mass of white. The ball sails over the Monmouth defenders’ heads into the net to score a golden goal.

“He just jumped on it,” says fifth-year Coach Andy Fleming, “and it went into the top of the netting.”

Ridsdale, normally right-footed, had shot with his left. “But I don’t think he could have hit it any better than he did. He smashed it into the goal, and that was it.”

Xavier fans go into a frenzy, jumping, screaming, flinging cups of ice in the air. Fleming falls to his knees and pumps his fists. Six Monmouth players and their goalie fall to the cold turf of their penalty box, and don’t move, their dreams of a tournament run ended. Xavier’s players rush, arms outstretched, to greet their celebrating fans. Some spill onto the field.

“It was unbelievable energy,” says former assistant coach Kris Bertsch.

It’s mostly as the team has imagined it would be. And they know even bigger things—including their first Sweet Sixteen game ever—are to follow. But for now, they want to savor the moment of their first win in their first NCAA Tournament home game.

“One vision I had was of people being up on that hill, and us coming out as the host of an NCAA Tournament game,” Fleming says. “It was definitely the best home-game moment we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

The victory was made even sweeter with memories of the snow that had kept his team off the practice field, and two losses early in the season.

“Since I was a freshman, we’ve always been pushing for a home NCAA game,” says senior Will Walker, who scored the game’s first goal. “I can’t explain the feeling. It’s unbelievable.”

Hoping the feeling continues, they enter the second round of the NCAA Tournament against the eight-time national champion Indiana Hoosiers in Bloomington, where storms puddle the muddy field. Xavier scores first and last in a 2-1 win, prevailing on Walker’s penalty kick.

Then comes the program’s first Sweet Sixteen match in Omaha against Creighton with a spirited crowd and cutting winds that freeze the cups of water on the bench. They play hard, but it does not go well for the Xavier men. Creighton wins 2-1.

Still, not bad for a supposed rebuilding year. NCAA Tournament prospects had looked shaky after Xavier allowed seven goals in the season’s first two games, both losses. After that, players refocused on defending, the hallmark of recent seasons. The team went 15-6-2, ending with a No. 13 ranking, and set a program record for fewest goals allowed per game. The seniors became the winningest class in program history, and a highly touted freshman class didn’t disappoint. Next season’s freshmen remind Fleming of this year’s seniors.

“I thought it was our best team,” Fleming says. “We were consistently good and occasionally great.”

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