Mitchell College men embrace underdog role in first NCAA appearance

Brayan Mora (6) of Mitchell College celebrates his goal against Elms College during the NECC men's soccer championship Sunday in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Brayan Mora (6) of Mitchell College celebrates his goal against Elms College during the NECC men's soccer championship Sunday in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

New London — They've had a few days for it to sink in.

Yet it is still hard for the Mitchell College Mariners to believe that they're in the NCAA Division III men's soccer tournament field for the first time in program history.

Never in their wildest dreams did they expect to secure a postseason berth during their playing careers.

"It's kind of nuts to be in a national tournament and be a top 64 team," sophomore Will Ferguson said. "It seems surreal. Obviously, I'm proud of everybody. I just never expected it. None of us did. It's a blessing, honestly. All of us have put in so much work to be here."

Come Saturday, Mitchell (9-8-1) will play on the NCAA big stage, taking on Saint Joseph's College (Maine) at 1 p.m. at Bello Field on the campus of Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

The Mariners didn't qualify for postseason by accident.

Coach Damian Houlden put a three-year plan in place when he took over in 2015. He had a proven formula to follow, as he guided the Mitchell women to the program's first NCAA berth in 2010.

With help from his assistants, Houlden has recruited local talent and established an anchor in the soccer community. The current roster has four players from New London High School, four from Norwich Free Academy, three from Waterford and one each from East Lyme, Ledyard, Wheeler and Old Lyme.

"When Dean Roberts retired, he gave us a really good blueprint to follow," Houlden said. "There were some good character kids. Our current group of kids are good kids. If your best kids are your best kids, you're going to be OK. They are grounded and have a good work ethic."

Ferguson, who's from Old Lyme, and Wheeler graduate T.J. Condon, team captains and All-New England Collegiate Conference first team picks, are part of the wave of local players. So is another captain, senior Zavier Veliz, who transferred to Mitchell last year from Salve Regina and graduated from New London High School.

"I've known most of these guys for a long time," Veliz said. "This is the first time I've won in any season for soccer. ... We went to the state tournament one time and got whooped. We never made the ECCs. So this is a crazy experience."

But not too crazy, at least so far.

The Mariners have remained calm and focused during workouts this week. Houlden expects their excitement and nervousness level to rise once they arrive in the Boston area Friday night.

Houlden has mapped out a route that will take them to a second round matchup with defending national champion Tufts on Sunday in second-round action.

"We're looking more big picture," Houlden said. "It's not so much the event on Saturday that's going to overwhelm us. How we've kind of structured it for them is, we win on Saturday, you play the current national champions on Sunday. They're more excited about the prospect of Sunday. And that's to take nothing away from St. Joe's. But I think St. Joe's will be in the same vein as well."

To beat Saint Joseph's will take Mitchell's best effort and even that might not be enough.

The Monks are undefeated at 18-0-1 and shut out all 19 opponents, an NCAA Division III record. Their goalie, 6-foot-7 Blake Mullen who starred at East Catholic in Manchester, has been forced to make only 42 saves all season. They routed Albertus Magnus 7-0, a team that Mitchell knocked off 2-1 in double overtime.

The Mariners, who are riding a season-high five game winning streak, are embracing the underdog role.

"No one is expecting us to win," Veliz said. "We know what we can do. We know if we're playing our best soccer we can beat anybody. Anything can happen. The best teams lose; Barcelona loses, the Cavs lose, the Warriors lose.

"We've had a real tough nonconference schedule. It's not like we haven't seen great teams before. ... We have to go in there and give everything we've got. We have nothing to lose."

g.keefe@theday.com

David Hernandez, front, of Mitchell College and goalkeeper AJ Oliviera of  Elms College go up in the air to gain control of the ball during the NECC men's soccer championship Sunday in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
David Hernandez, front, of Mitchell College and goalkeeper AJ Oliviera of Elms College go up in the air to gain control of the ball during the NECC men's soccer championship Sunday in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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