Ithaca, N. Y.—When the final whistle blew, most of the 22 soccer players on the field collapsed to the ground. They were shattered physically and emotionally. Many had tears in their eyes. It felt more like a battlefield than an Ivy League men’s soccer game, but the players’ reactions explains exactly what was at stake.
Columbia (8-7-2, 4-2-1 Ivy) and Cornell (8-2-6, 3-1-3 Ivy) faced off in a clash at the Big Red’s Berman Field on Saturday evening. Because Brown and Dartmouth played out a scoreless tie in the day’s earlier kickoff, the Lions and the Big Red knew that they each had a shot at the Ivy League title.
A win for the Light Blue would have given it the title outright, while a Cornell win would have resulted in a three-way tie for the title between the Big Red, the Bears, and the Big Green. Thus, with both teams effectively playing their biggest soccer match in the last 18 years—neither side has won the Ivy League title in the sport since the Lions were champions in 1993—they both gave it their all. They had to settle for a hard-fought 1-1 tie after two periods of overtime. Columbia sophomore midfielder David Najem scored a stunning goal in the 17th minute to give the visitors the lead, but the hosts leveled the score before halftime thanks to sophomore forward Daniel Haber’s ninth goal of the season.
“We’ve worked all season for this moment, this game,” Columbia head coach Kevin Anderson said. “It’s something that you’ve heard us talk about. We didn’t come to just win one game, but the fact of the matter is we came to win this one. Sometimes in sport it’s two teams that put together a game-plan and you put your heart and soul into something—and it’s sport.”
The result meant that Brown and Dartmouth will share the 2011 Ivy title, with Columbia finishing third and Cornell fourth. The Big Green received the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament because it beat third-place Columbia, whereas Brown lost to the Light Blue. Brown, Columbia, and Cornell could receive at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. This season was the Lions’ best overall finish to a season since 2003, and the team’s best Ivy record since 2002.
However, senior captain Mike Mazzullo was far from content.
“I’m not going to lie to you, I’m not proud at all as a captain,” he said. “It was there for us and we didn’t take it. It might have been the saddest moment of my life. I can’t really think of a positive. I can say for me it was just a very sad ending.”
Neither side could be faulted for effort though. The game got off to a flying start with the Lions initially struggling to adjust to Cornell’s route-one style of play. The Big Red had the better of the opening exchanges, but the Lions were the first to score with a goal against the run of play. Najem picked up the ball near the half-line, and turned before running at the opposition. Columbia forwards sophomore Henning Sauerbier and junior Will Stamatis made runs that pulled the Cornell defense wide, and Najem was one-on-one against a defender. He moved the ball onto his left side to leave the defender in his wake, and then shifted the ball onto his right foot before opening up his body and curling a shot into the top corner past freshman Zach Zagorski in Cornell’s goal.
“That was the dream start we were praying for,” Najem said. “It felt sort of like a dream but we knew we had a long game to go and our work cut out.”
The Lions had the upper hand temporarily, almost doubling their lead five minutes later. However, senior defender Ronnie Shaban saw his header, from junior winger Nick Scott’s corner, cleared off the goal-line. (Shaban is a sports columnist for Spectator.)
The hosts raised the tempo with ten minutes to go in the first period, and the Lions were under siege. The Columbia backline dealt with most of what it was faced with, but Cornell eventually found an opening in the 41st minute.
A pass from the defense found Cornell junior forward Tyler Regan on the right flank, and he beat his man and played a low ball into the danger area towards Haber. The sophomore finished low past Columbia’s Alex Aurrichio, and the score was tied.
Both sides had eight shots in the opening period as the teams went in level at the break.
While the teams recorded 11 shots combined in the second half, there were no clear-cut chances for either side and the game was forced to enter overtime as a result.
Mazzullo came closest to breaking the deadlock right at the end of the first additional period. Scott played in a dangerous corner, and the Light Blue captain evaded his marker to get on the end of it. However, his shot was saved by Zagorski and Mazzullo was left holding his head as the first period of overtime came to a close.
The second period of OT would decide the 2011 Ivy men’s soccer champion, and both teams were going for gold. Stamatis had a chance on the turn, and even though his strike wasn’t the cleanest, it forced Zagorski into a diving one-handed save. Moments later, Cornell countered and won a free-kick on the edge of the area and Aurrichio was forced into a flying save. It was a frantic last few minutes to the game, but eventually the final whistle sounded with the score tied 1-1 even though Columbia and Cornell tallied a mammoth 20 shots each in the contest.
The players left the field to a standing ovation from the crowd, and Anderson was proud of his charges, especially the eight members of the senior class.
“We wind up with a draw and that gives us nothing, but the thing that I am proud of is the growth and leadership of this team, of the senior class—they’ve been phenomenal,” he said. “They’ve been a pleasure to coach, they’ve been a pleasure to watch grow, and in return I think I’ve grown eight times what each of them have grown, because of the eight of them. So it’s unfortunate, we left it all out on the field—there’s no doubt in my mind that we played to win tonight and it winds up as a draw so there’s not too much to talk about.”
Both teams must now wait for the NCAA to announce the at-large bids for the postseason tournament.
“We’ll see, we’ll keep our fingers crossed—we’ll see what happens,” Anderson continued. “I think Monday at the NCAA show is a long-shot, but you never know. Things happen in sports, and when you work hard you get opportunities, and these kids absolutely worked hard. They’re the heart and soul of this team, our senior class, and they’re the foundation that this coaching staff has to help build this program. We talked about the foundation having to be the strongest part of your team, so with those eight we have a foundation that can take us wherever we need to go.”
Postseason or not, Najem, a sophomore, knows he has two more seasons with the Light Blue, and is determined to give something back to the current crop of seniors.
“The seniors and the coaches have set the path for us, and now it’s our job to take advantage of this opportunity,” he said. “We were guided by one of the best group of seniors we’ve had in a long time. The experience, the passion that they brought to us, I can’t even describe to you how rewarding that it for us. We have to turn this rough experience into something we can build off of. These guys have provided everything for us and I think it’s only fitting that we give something back to them and win them a Championship.”
All eyes will now turn to the 2011 NCAA Selection show, which airs today at 4:30 p.m. on NCAA.com.