Conn College plays in Div. III semifinals on Friday
They've cherished every moment together as a team during their magical journey.
Here it is December and the Connecticut College Camels are still playing, preparing to compete in the NCAA Division III Championship men's soccer semifinals for the first time in program history.
"It's an unbelievable feeling to say we're playing in December," senior Lorenzo Bocchetti said.
Sixth-ranked Connecticut College (17-4-1) faces No. 1 Washington & Lee (18-1-2) at 5 p.m. Friday at University of North Carolina Greensboro Soccer Stadium in the first semifinal while No. 19 Amherst (16-2-2) takes on No. 10 University of Chicago (16-5-1) at 7:45 p.m. Winners will meet for the national title Saturday.
Before leaving for Greensboro on Wednesday, the Camels enjoyed the support they received from the school community and former players.
"A lot of people are talking about it," coach Reuben Burk said earlier this week. "I've definitely had more congratulations and emails than I've ever gotten before. People have been really supportive. The whole school is excited. Certainly some administrators and professors will be traveling down, which is really appreciated.
"I've heard from a lot of guys. And a lot of guys from all three eras — the Bill Lessig era, the Ken Murphy era and my era. A good representation of each group. Hopefully, it's an occasion, the Final Four, where regardless of who you played for, it's a good coming together and celebrating where the program is now."
Amherst, which won the national title in 2015, is the only team with previous Final Four experience. The Mammoths and Camels are New England Small College Athletic Conference members.
A NESCAC program has captured the national championship five out of the last six seasons.
Conn College eliminated Tufts, which won the last two national titles, in the Elite Eight on Nov. 21, earning a wild 5-4 victory in Medford, Mass. It was the program's second straight trip to the NCAA quarterfinals.
A 2-0 win at home over previously undefeated Tufts on Oct. 23 gave Conn College a huge shot of confidence and belief that it could make a deep run in the postseason.
"We've had this goal of the Final Four since the end of the 2019 season, so we've had our eyes set on it," Bocchetti said. "We've known that we've had the capability. The real belief in it probably came in the home regular season win against Tufts. It really showed us after we had a dominating performance against the defending national champions, we can do anything if we are prepared for each game."
This has been a break-through season for the Camels, who won their first NESCAC regular season title and appeared in the conference championship game for the first time. They extended their school-record consecutive NCAA tournament appearance streak to four straight.
Now they're determined to make even more school history this weekend in Greensboro. Only one other Conn College team — the 1999 men's basketball team — has reached the Final Four, losing in the semifinals.
"A special group of guys," Burk said.
Washington & Lee, a school located in Lexington, Va., is a formidable foe. The high-powered Generals have outscored their opponents, 14-5, in four NCAA tourney games. Sophomore forward Adrian Zimmerman broke the Division III single tournament scoring record with nine goals while junior midfielder Micahel Kutsanzira (seven goals, 13 assists), who attended Putnam Science Academy, is another dangerous player.
As a member of perhaps the best Division III men's soccer conference in the nation, battle-tested Conn College has played against its share of powerhouse programs.
The Camels are refreshed and refocused after taking a few days off during Thanksgiving week.
"Even though it's a great stage to be on, they still have to perform or else it's a short-lived experience," Burk said. "There's excitement. None of us have even gone on an airplane for an NCAA game. Leaving the region to play is really cool.
"For me, what's pleasing, they're not content with just being here. It's two good performances away from winning a national championship. There's a good groundedness and focusness with the group."
The Camels showed their grit, competitive spirit and talent while winning in a number of different ways during a remarkable postseason run, going to penalty kicks to beat Salem State, dominating New York University by controlling possession and playing lockdown defense, delivering a dramatic game-winner in the 89th minute against Redlands and finally outslugging Tufts.
It's been a complete team effort.
Bocchetti, Aiden Scales, Steve Yeonas, the team captains, have provided valuable leadership to a young team. The Camels have only three seniors.
"We have a truly unbelievable squad, and I mean that to the fullest of its meaning," Bocchetti said. "We have a very deep squad. Whether guys are playing five minutes or 90 minutes, you can expect the same product from them in their time on the field. Even the guys who aren't really getting minutes during these NCAA games, those are the guys who are really pushing the team in training every day to be able to perform on game day. The support from the bench on game day is definitely unmatched by any team in the country."
"We have such a close-knit group. That's the winning formula for us."