Conn College men win D-III national soccer title in penalty kick shootout
After an exhausting 110 minutes of high intensity action and a pressure-packed penalty kick shootout, the Connecticut College men's soccer team emerged with the first team national championship in school history on Saturday night.
Senior Lorenzo Bocchetti clinched the NCAA Division III tournament title for the Camels by knocking in his penalty kick in the fourth round. They won the shootout, 4-1, over Amherst in a fierce battle between two New England Small College Athletic Conference programs.
A short time later, the Camels raised a hard-earned national championship trophy on the field at the University of North Carolina Greensboro Soccer Stadium.
"Real surreal feeling because I think as a player you work your whole life dreaming about this moment, as a coach you go into coaching to live for moments like this," coach Reuben Burk said during a Zoom press conference. "It's been a dream for so long, once you're living in the moment, honestly, it's tough to do an interview because you're at a loss for words a little bit.
"Really, really special. I'm just happy for these guys, happy for alumni, happy for the student body and administrators."
Burk sat behind a table with the national championship trophy in front of him and two happy Camels — Bocchetti and MT Tshuma — nearby.
"It hasn't really sunk in like what we've done in terms of helping to progress Conn athletics," Bocchetti said. "To have that as your career ending game, it's an unmatched feeling right now."
There were so many heroes for the Camels (19-4-1), who played inspired team soccer throughout the NCAA tournament, including in their first trip to the Final Four. They won all three of their postseason games that went to overtime.
Freshman Peter Silvester, who had played in only four games this season, replaced starter Sam Maidenberg in goal for the shootout and made two acrobatic diving saves.
Junior Steve Yeonas, senior Tshuma and junior Augie Djerdjaj each calmly converted a penalty kick in the first three rounds to give the Camels a cushion. Djerdjaj also scored the game's first goal — his team-high tying sixth of the season — in the second half.
And a stout Camel defense led by Maidenberg did everything possible, including blocking several dangerous shots, to try to contain the Mammoths.
The spirited, physical game stood at 1-1 at the end of regulation. With both teams running on empty and playing their second overtime game in two days, there were few quality chances in the extra sessions.
Conn College, which once considered just qualifying for the NCAA tournament a success, entered the postseason with championship aspirations.
In the only regular-season meeting with Amherst, Conn College dropped a 2-0 decision at home on Sept. 25. The Mammoths were unbeaten in the last 10 games (7-0-3) in the series.
To avenge that defeat, the Camels had to break through a nearly impenetrable defense that allowed just one goal in the previous nine games. The Mammoths were unbeaten (8-0-1) during that stretch. They also had national championship game experience, losing in the finals to Tufts in 2019.
Djerdjaj, the NESCAC Player of the Year, delivered the goal with 31 minutes left in regulation. He fought off a defender, who had his arms wrapped around the junior midfielder, to head Rye Jaran's beautiful corner kick into the corner.
The Camels nearly survived extended pressure from the Mammoths. Bryce Johnson's long flip-in throws created havoc in the box and forced Maidenberg to punch the ball out of danger several times.
But Amherst finally notched the game tying goal with just 1:27 left. During a wild scramble in the goal mouth, Kyle Kelly deflected in the loose ball.
The goal could have deflated the Camels, but it didn't.
"It was chaos," Bocchetti said of the game. "We went up and we're scrapping by to keep the lead and we gave up a goal with a minute and half left in the game. But, credit to the full team, when we huddled up after conceding that goal there wasn't a shred of doubt in any player's face.
"Everybody was composed and knew we were still going to get the job done."
During their journey that started with a 2-1 loss at Wheaton on Sept. 14, the Camels cleared all the hurdles that tripped them up in the past.
For the first time, they won their first NESCAC regular season title and hosted the league tournament. They knocked off Tufts, which captured the last two national championships, in dramatic fashion in the NCAA quarterfinals.
Then they finally knocked off Amherst (17-3-2).
"Congrats to Conn College," Amherst coach Justin Serpone said. "Coach Burk, amazing season. Those guys were terrific all the way through. What coach Burk has done with that program is just unbelievable. They lost such an important group with the kids that they graduated in 2019. For them to be national champs is just incredible."