The Montclair State University men’s soccer team completed one of their most successful seasons in recent memory, although their run to a national championship was cut short after falling in penalty kicks during the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament. Nonetheless, the Red Hawks delivered plenty of magical moments in the postseason.
After finishing undefeated in New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) play, Montclair State received the regular season championship, as well as a first round bye in the NJAC Tournament. However, the semifinal round against Stockton University was no cake walk as they went into the locker room down by a goal.
The Red Hawks rallied in the second half. Senior midfielder Osbin Mendez, who scored the game tying goal, said that the team’s ability to persevere gave them the edge in tight games.
“Two things [Head Coach Todd Tumelty] always told us in the beginning and at half time [was] if we’re down, is to believe and to fight the adversity,” Mendez said. “And I feel that’s something we did pretty well.”
Montclair State was able to turn that belief into reality, with seconds to go in the match, a late shot bounced off of the crossbar and freshman forward Salem Elisly rocketed the ball into the back of the net as time expired. The buzzer-beater secured the Red Hawk’s spot in the NJAC Championship Game.
That game pitted the squad against rival Rowan University in a rematch of the 2022 championship game. That matchup did not go the Red Hawk’s way as they were shut out 3-0 at home.
This time around Montclair State quickly took care of business. The team recorded four second half goals to win the game 4-2. Junior midfielder Amer Lukovic, the leading goal scorer in the nation, left his mark on the match after scoring twice against the Profs.
The celebration was on after the final whistle, with the Red Hawks storming the field before lifting the NJAC trophy. Junior midfielder Owen Murphy said that learning from the past was key to their success on the field.
“I think what we went through the last few years, not winning the NJAC and then not making the [NCAA] Tournament last year,” Murphy said. “We learned from those tough moments and then, yeah, I think that’s what brought us through these tough moments and games.”
According to Murphy, defeating a rival for the trophy made the victory even better.
“I think Rowan is a rival.” Murphy said. “I think we both earned that right to call them a rival. We’re the top two teams every year, so getting a little revenge on them just made it a little sweeter.”
The team did not have long to celebrate, because the conference title win meant that Montclair State received an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The first two rounds were played at home on back to back days.
In the first round, fifth year goalkeeper Shane Keenan kept a clean score sheet with the help of a sturdy back line. Lukovic netted both of the games goals to send Elmira College home 2-0.
The next day’s game was a different story with Christopher Newport University as both teams were knotted at 1 going into overtime. With no goals in the first overtime, Lukovic broke the deadlock with a goal after Mendez lobbed the ball over to him.
The Red Hawks were able to seal the deal after Lukovic scored again minutes later. Tumelty said that his team’s age and experience kept them in the game.
“I think the experience of never giving up and the composure that they have is something that they’ve learned over time,” Tumelty said. “And it’s something that is what keeps them in games late and what keeps them going.”
In the Sweet 16 against Connecticut College, the Red Hawk’s backs were against the wall. The Camels’ attack was red hot in the first half, scoring two goals in the first half. However, there was one last bit of magic for Montclair State, as they put up two goals of their own in the second half to force overtime.
With no scoring in both overtime periods, the Red Hawks season came down to penalty kicks. Unfortunately for Montclair State, the Camels hammered in their first three attempts in a row. After a long postseason of close results, their run to the NCAA championship ended in brutal fashion.
Mendez looked back on the season proud of his team’s accomplishments but wishes their run did not end in the Sweet 16.
“Obviously the goal was to win the NJAC and we accomplished that and the next goal was the NCAA.” Mendez said. “Unfortunately [our run was] cut short. We do feel like we deserve more, but at the end of the day we are just happy that we were able to play a few extra weeks after the NJAC and experience the NCAA’s.”
In the end, five players were given All-Region honors, and Lukovic along with junior defender Ian Chesney were named All-Americans. Tumelty said that scheduling top-tier opponents was key in getting those players to play high-level soccer.
“You had Babson on the schedule, you had Amherst on the schedule,” Tumelty said. “So, those are teams that are perennial in the top 10 in the country. And I think that with playing those teams and winning those games or making those games close and being right in those games is what kept us kind of high on the charts. And I think it’s well deserved. I think these guys are definitely near the top of the nation for as far as talent goes.”
In terms of the state of the soccer program going forward, Tumelty said that it’s as good as it has ever been, suggesting that another title run could be in the cards.
“I think that when you have seniors on the team, it is huge when you have guys that have been here for four years, some of the guys five years because of Covid, they mature, they get older, they start to understand what it takes,” Tumelty said. “Most of the time if you see NCAA tournament teams, you see the teams that win in the championship. So, a lot of times like [the University of Chicago] who won a couple of years ago, they had a senior heavy team as well. So, I think those are the types of teams that can make the special runs into the final four and then hopefully win a national championship.”
Murphy reflected on the season by saying that although the outcome was a bit unsatisfying, the team was able to accomplish many of the goals they set out to achieve.
“We won the NJAC, we went 9-0 in the regular season, made it to the Sweet 16, and lost a heartbreaker to a good team. So at the end of the day, it’s a really good season. We just wish we could have done a little bit more.”