By Drew Brown
Drew Brown is
Getting Their Kicks While Heading to the Ball
Soccer Team enjoys Cinderella Season
Through the years, Fairleigh Dickinson has had a proud soccer tradition. The Division I program made 11 NCAA Tournament appearances from 1963 to 1989. Since 1989, however, the Knights had not reached soccers version of The Big Dance until last fall.
My goals when I began here were to rebuild this program into a Northeast Conference (NEC) power and to make it a nationally recognized team on an annual basis, says fifth-year Head Coach Seth Roland.
After a rebuilding period, Rolands vision started to become a reality in 2000 as he guided the Knights to their first NEC regular-season and tournament titles since 1989 and to a spot in the NCAA play-in round. The Knights just missed their shot at an NCAA Tournament berth; but Roland and his team had tasted success and were hungry for more in 2001.
I knew we could be good again heading into this year, says Roland. We set the bar high and put a lot of pressure on ourselves, but we had a very motivated team and one with a lot of character.
They were actually full of characters and lots of good stories. The teams number one scoring threat, junior forward Aaron Paye (First Team All-NEC, First Team All-Region, Third Team All-America) had Minnesota governor and former pro wrestling star Jesse The Body Ventura as his high school strength and conditioning coach. Assistant Coach Ethan Zohn, who is also an assistant with the womens team, was a cast member on the CBS television show Survivor and eventually won the million-dollar grand prize.
Beyond the personal triumphs, the program faced tragedy outside the lines. Not too long after one of his star forwards, senior Dirceu Hurtado, had made a miraculous comeback from a near-fatal brain aneurysm, Rolands wife, Marjorie, died of brain cancer at the age of 39 last April.
She had more courage than anyone Ive ever known, says Roland. She was a big part of our championship last year and such a supportive loving wife and devoted mother. This year I felt comforted by the fact that I could dedicate the conference championship to Marjories memory.
His players felt just as strongly. As we continued to win, we realized theres no question that his wife was looking over us, says Paye.
This clearly wasnt just another soccer season, as illustrated by headlines labeling the squad a Team of Destiny and Fabulous Knights. Roland and the Knights not only reached the NCAA Tournament, but went as far as the Elite Eight for only the third time in program history and the first time since 1984. His peers rewarded Roland by voting him Mid-Atlantic Region Coach of the Year.
The road to the promised land wasnt without a few bumps. Early in the season, the Knights struggled to find consistency. The defending league champs fell in their first two NEC games and then lost a key home contest against William and Mary 3-1.
We did not play well and the effort just wasnt there, says Roland. I wasnt happy with our performance and I challenged them. His team answered the wake-up call by rattling off 10 straight wins, the programs longest winning streak in 18 years. The Knights also closed out the regular season with eight consecutive league wins to capture a share of their second straight regular-season league crown and headed into the NEC Tournament as the number-two seed.
Fairleigh Dickinson opened up the tourney with a 1-0 triumph over the University of Maryland Baltimore County, setting up the championship game two days later against a fierce rival, Long Island University. In an epic physical battle that lasted nearly 142 minutes the longest game in NEC Mens Soccer Tournament history the Knights prevailed on two penalty kicks scored by senior Orce Kozeski, including the game-winner in the fourth overtime.
The Knights had become the first team in league history to accomplish the double repeat: back-to-back NEC regular-season and tournament championships. Their reward was the programs first NCAA Tournament berth since 1989 and a first-round match up with Big East opponent Boston College. The Knights shut down the dangerous Eagles offense and took them to a third overtime after a scoreless regulation. Finally, in the 122nd minute, Paye came up with yet another big goal, his 15th of the season, to lift the Knights to a thrilling 1-0 win.
In the second round, they faced host and 12th-ranked Princeton University, who defeated FDU in September. The Tigers hounded the Knights goal in the first half, out-shooting them 10-2 but they were unable to finish any opportunities. Sophomore Nate Olson put the Knights up 1-0 in the 53rd minute with a header, only his second goal of the season. Paye scored his second goal of the tournament on a breakaway in the 80th minute. That goal was critical as the Tigers struck in the 87th minute to cut the margin to 2-1. Princeton continued to fire away, but senior goalkeeper Vytautas Lenkutis (First Team All-NEC, Honorable Mention All-America), who led the NEC with a .849 save percentage, came up with another big save in the closing seconds to seal the win and give the Knights a spot in the Sweet 16.
The team added another chapter to the storybook tale in the third round against favored Seton Hall. Like Princeton, the Pirates had beaten the Knights earlier in the season, but this was a much different Fairleigh Dickinson team. The Knights withstood 25 shots by the Pirates behind the play of Lenkutis and a nearly impenetrable backfield. The Knights broke through with the only goal of the match at the 53:08 mark. Junior Taffarie Laing was the hero this time as he tapped a shot in from seven yards out. The goal, along with Laings headfirst dive in front of the Knights bench, sent the Fairleigh fans into a frenzy as the team secured a spot in the quarterfinals against eighth-ranked University of North Carolina with a 1-0 win.
After we won the NEC Tournament and earned the NCAA bid, I thought we had the potential to win a couple of games and that anything could happen, says Seth Roland. To have it actually happen was surreal.
The David against Goliath quarterfinal showdown would go down to the wire. Playing on their home field, UNC had more shots and more offensive opportunities, but the Knights stuck to their game plan play strong defense, be opportunistic and counter.
Paye tallied his third goal of the tournament and team-leading 17th of the season just 19:27 into the contest after a UNC player was unable to clear a ball in front of his goal. The Knights held the 1-0 lead until UNC struck twice in a span of 4:24 to take a 2-1 advantage in the 77th minute. It seemed as if the final chapter was coming to a close, but the gritty Knights were not ready to go home just yet.
Paye had one more burst in him to catch up to a long pass in the final minute. He took the ball into the box along with a UNC defender who slipped and landed with his hand on the ball resulting in a penalty kick with 31 seconds left in regulation. Hurtado was chosen for the pressure kick. Cool as ice, he buried it in the back of the net to send the game into overtime. The Knights eventually fell in the third overtime on an own goal, but they had taken the eventual tournament winners to the brink of elimination and were rewarded by being ranked 11th in the final national poll. The squad closed the campaign with an impressive 17-7 mark (8-2 NEC).
Im so proud of this team, says Roland. The way they fought, the effort they gave all season long and the guts they displayed against a team like Carolina was just amazing.
The game and the season were over, but not before the largely unknown, mid-major team from New Jersey had captured the hearts and imagination of the college soccer world. It was a fairy-tale ride that will not soon be forgotten.