Mitchell College men's soccer excited about first NCAA trip

Goalkeeper Seth Strader, second from left facing camera, is swarmed by his Mitchell College teammates after the Mariners beat Elms 1-0 on Sunday to win the NECC title and clinch the program's first NCAA Division III tournament bid. Mitchell will play unbeaten St. Joseph's (Me.) in the first round Saturday at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Goalkeeper Seth Strader, second from left facing camera, is swarmed by his Mitchell College teammates after the Mariners beat Elms 1-0 on Sunday to win the NECC title and clinch the program's first NCAA Division III tournament bid. Mitchell will play unbeaten St. Joseph's (Me.) in the first round Saturday at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

New London — Mitchell College eliminated any suspense for the NCAA Division III men's soccer tournament selection show by earning an automatic berth.

Still, the moment the Mariners popped up in the bracket for the first time in program history will always be a fond memory.

Still soaking in Sunday's thrilling 1-0 win over Elms College in the New England Collegiate Conference tournament final, the Mariners learned their first round opponent and destination on Monday.

Mitchell (9-8-1) will play St. Joseph's College of Maine on Saturday at Tufts University's Bello Field in Medford, Mass. Game time has yet to be announced.

"It was pretty cool," coach Damian Houlden. "The boys were in the locker room. They're excited. We get to go up to Boston and Tufts, the defending national champion, is hosting. And we get to play St. Joseph's."

The Monks (18-0-1) won the Great Northeast Athletic Conference championship for the second straight season, beating Norwich University 1-0 in the final, They've outscored opponents 65-0 and own an NCAA record consecutive shutout streak (19). It will be their third NCAA trip.

The first-round winner advances to play fourth-ranked Tufts (15-1-2), which received a first round bye, on Sunday.

The Mariners carry a season-best five-game winning streak into the first round.

Houlden believes his non-conference schedule served as good preparation for the national tournament.

"They've had a good year," Houlden said of his team. "(Winning) the first game isn't beyond the realm of possibility for us. We played some good teams and we did that on purpose. We'll see what happens."

The opponent really doesn't matter to the Mariners, who are thrilled to be part of the postseason party.

"I always wanted to be here," said sophomore goalie Seth Strader, a Norwich Free Academy graduate, after Sunday's NECC championship win. "Our team did what we had to do and pulled out the win and now we're in the NCAA tournament, which is a dream."

Men's soccer is the fourth Mitchell program to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Baseball has a school-best four trips (2011, 2014, 2015, 2016) while men's basketball earned a spot in 2014 and women's soccer in 2010.

Houlden holds the unique distinction of guiding two Mitchell programs into the NCAA field, as he ran the women's soccer program before taking over the men's team. But he'd much rather celebrate his program's success than any individual accomplishment.

Monday was not only a special day for men's soccer but the entire college community.

"This is a family event," Houlden said. "I'm happy for the boys, I'm happy for the school and happy for the administration and our other sports programs."

g.keefe@theday.com

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