Mitchell men nip Elms to secure first NECC soccer title, NCAA tournament bid
New London — As the final frantic seconds ticked away on the program's first New England Collegiate Conference tournament championship, Mitchell College coach Damian Houlden ran down the sideline shouting instructions.
The top-seeded Mariners expended every ounce of energy to hold off No. 3 Elms College in a high intensity, physical and often chippy men's soccer game that featured nine yellow cards and a red card, which forced the Mariners to play shorthanded for the final 32 minutes.
Somehow, someway, Mitchell survived an exhausting white-knuckle ride to a 1-0 victory on Sunday at Alumni Field.
"So many emotions," said sophomore goalie Seth Strader, a Norwich Free Academy graduate. "We're so happy. We came from not starting off the season well, to coming back and leaving our heart on the field. We did everything we could and came out with a win today."
It's been a breakthrough season for the program, reaching the NECC finals for the first time, winning its first conference championship and earning its first NCAA bid.
"To go down to 10 players and we're defending a 1-0 lead, this team a year ago would have crumbled and given up," Houlden said. "This team today, we deserve to be where we are. I'm so happy for the boys, I really am. They're a great group."
Mitchell (9-8-1) avenged its only conference loss, a demoralizing 2-1 loss when Elms scored two goals in the final 10 minutes on Sept. 23.
This time, Mariners refused to buckle after seizing a 1-0 lead on senior Brayan Mora's goal 10 minutes, 17 seconds before intermission.
The scoring play started with a fortunate deflection for Mitchell after two players challenged for a ball in the air, falling right to an open Mora near the top of the box. Mora maintained his poise and toe-poked a rolling shot past an on-rushing goalie A.J. Oliviera and into the open net.
The goal provided valuable momentum and capped extended pressure by the Mariners.
"It was big, very big," said Mora, a New London graduate. "We were coming at them strong but they were holding pretty tight. And it gave us a little breather and that's what we needed."
Clinging to a one-goal lead, Mitchell's path to victory became tougher in the second half. Elms applied constant pressure pushing for the tying goal. Myles Hurley's close-range shot struck the far post and Strader smothered the ball to prevent a rebound.
Then the referee gave sophomore David Hernandez a straight red card at the 57:43 mark, leaving the Mariners a man down.
Pinned in their own end, the Mariners fended off a barrage of dangerous crosses in the box. Defenders T.J. Condon (North Stonington), William Ferguson (Old Lyme), Quinn Outerbridge and Mora helped fight off every challenge. Strader made just one save but aggressively controlled the goal area.
"They were just coming at us like a train," Mora said. "But we stayed composed and talked to each other and trusted each other."
The program's historic victory capped off a significant turnaround for the Mariners, who bounced back from a rocky 1-5-1 start and finished in a tie for first place in the NECC.
After receiving the championship trophy and dousing Houlden with the traditional ice bucket bath, the Mariners lingered on the field, posing for pictures and exchanging hugs with teammates and family. Sophomore midfielder James Shea earned most valuable player honors while teammates Eduardo Tineo (Waterford), Andrew Storton and Strader also made the all-championship team.
Mitchell will learned its NCAA destination and opponent on Monday.
"Today was gritty, today was tough," Houlden said. "We're just happy that we're in it. The next phase now is try not to enjoy the honeymoon too much because we have another game."
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