Men’s Soccer: NU continues magical run with Big Ten Tournament title

Dan Ryan

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After clinching the Big Ten regular-season title a week ago, Northwestern brought home an even more impressive piece of hardware Sunday, defeating Penn State 2-1 to win the Big Ten Tournament.

“To win the double is something that we didn’t necessarily have on our goals for the season,” junior midfielder Nick Gendron said. “But our team came together throughout the season, and we realized that ‘hey, this is a very realistic possibility that we can go and win both.'”

Getting to that championship game was no easy feat for the Wildcats, as they needed penalty kicks to take down Indiana in the semifinals. The difficult challenge presented by the No. 7 Hoosiers came as no surprise to the Cats, after the two teams fought to a tie during their regular-season matchup. That stalemate was brought about by a late goal from senior forward Oliver Kupe.

In the opening minutes of Friday’s match, NU had the upper hand on an Indiana team playing its second match in three days.

“We knew they had just played a game on Wednesday, ” freshman goalkeeper Tyler Miller said. “So we felt that if we were able to play well and play consistent throughout the game that eventually fatigue would wear on with them.”

The Cats looked sharp to begin the match.

“We had them on the ropes for the first couple minutes,” Gendron said. “Had a couple good chances at the beginning, hit the bar twice. And then they kind of settled in.”

At the 19:34 mark in the first half, Indiana’s All-Big Ten freshman forward Eriq Zavaleta got the Hoosiers out to another early lead, but the Cats, much like they’ve done throughout their 11-game unbeaten streak, found a way to claw back.

With 13 minutes left in regulation, sophomore midfielder Lepe Seetane fired a shot that deflected off Indiana goalkeeper Luis Soffner into the net, drawing the teams even at one.

“We were relentless in our attack,” Gendron said. “We ended up getting a goal, it was kind of an interesting goal, but we deserved a goal for how we were playing.”

After both teams failed to convert on their chances in overtime, the game went to penalty kicks, during which Miller put forth one of his best performances of the season.

After NU was unable to put its fifth shot into the net, Miller saved Indiana’s sixth attempt.

“I was just feeling confident,” Miller said. “I knew where the first shooter went, and I knew that if I was able to save that one, it would make me even more confident for the next ones coming up, which it did. I was able to save four out of six, so it was a good result.”

Gendron’s subsequent game-winner sent the Cats to the finals.

“We had a chance to probably go up a couple, and I didn’t know if it was going to get to me or not since I was the sixth shooter,” Gendron said. “When it came time for my shot, I just kind of went up and cleared my mind. You have to be confident going into a kick or it’s just not going to work. I have the shot that I like for my PKs, and I just executed.”

NU then moved on to face Penn State, the first No. 7 seed in conference history to reach the Big Ten Tournament finals. Once again, the Cats had the advantage of being better rested, as the Nittany Lions were playing their third game in five days.

After taking care of Indiana on Friday, coach Tim Lenahan said he didn’t need a speech to get the Cats ready to play. Their uniforms said it all.

“We got to wear the home white jerseys because we were the best team in the Big Ten all year,” Lenahan said. “I just kind of reminded them of that: We were the best team all year, and we’ll be the best team today.”

But NU did not start the game looking like the ‘best team.’

With the wind at their backs, the Nittany Lions scored 25 minutes into the match, on a goal from 18 yards out by Minh Vu, and kept the Cats’ opportunities at a minimum.

“The wind was definitely a big factor,” Gendron said. “They had the wind in the first half. They started high pressuring us to begin, and we were really just trying to fight them off for the first half. We didn’t have much possession or anything. We escaped down 1-0.”

NU remained confident despite the early deficit.

“We knew when we went down 1-0 after they scored that we had the resilience to come back to win the game,” Kupe said. “We had done it a couple times before, the game before against Indiana. So we just kept our composure, and we knew if we kept attacking we could get the equalizer and the eventual game-winner.”

The Cats’ persistent attack eventually forced the Nittany Lions to foul Kupe in the box, setting up a penalty kick for Peter O’Neill. The senior midfielder converted on the chance to tie the game at one apiece in the 65th minute.

“The second half we knew we had the wind at our backs,” Miller added. “So we were able to come out and play strong. We knew that if we got the first, we would be able to get the second.”

Ten minutes later, Kupe gave the Cats the lead.

After stealing the ball, Gendron served it to Kupe, who took care of the rest himself, beating his lone defender and depositing the game-winning goal in the Penn State net.

“It was a good play, kind of a scrambling play,” Kupe said. “The ball bounced over the left back and Nick Gendron did a great job getting his toe on it and poked it through to me. Then I had one guy to beat, and then I touched past him. And then I had one-on-one with the keeper, and I just placed it near post. I knew all I had to do was put it on goal and I would have a good chance to score.”

Up 2-1, the Cats shut down the Nittany Lions’ attack to preserve the lead and clinch an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

It was certainly a departure from the way NU’s 2010 season ended: a 3-1 Big Ten Tournament loss at the hands of Penn State.

“This is probably the best season we’ve had, I’ve had so far in my four years,
Kupe said. “This ranks up in my top moments of my soccer career. I wasn’t really expecting to come in here this year and win the double, but we knew we were good enough to do it.”

The Cats now await their draw in the NCAA Tournament, but don’t expect the team to worry too much in the next two days about their upcoming matches.

“Well we’re going to sit around tomorrow and watch the draw,” Lenahan said. “Right now, enjoying a double championship.”

danielryan2014@u.northwestern.edu

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