The Occidental men’s soccer team (13-4-3 overall, 10-3-3 SCIAC) concluded their season last week in the semifinals of the SCIAC playoffs after falling to Redlands 3-1, despite a strong start.
The Tigers shook off the fact that they had dropped their two previous games against the Bulldogs by taking an early 1-0 lead in the sixth minute. Elijah Remy (sophomore) initiated the play by sending the ball back to Michael Tonetti* (senior), who quickly sent an aerial pass to Daniel Lawson (senior), who finished off the play by heading the ball past the Bulldog keeper.
Occidental continued to push the pace throughout the first half and looked poised to make it to their first ever SCIAC Postseason Tournament Championship Game, but Redlands surged in the second half, finding the back of the net three times.
“Our game plan going into the game was the same as it was for all the others, we wanted to play fast,” striker Grayson Burdon (junior) said. “It worked well in the first half, we scored early and were commanding the field.”
Following the goal, the Tiger’s offense started to cool down, while their defense was just warming up. Anchored by goalkeeper Theo Atkinson (senior), who holds the second best save percentage in the nation (.909), Occidental only allowed one shot on goal during the first 45 minutes of play. The shot came in the seventh minute, when the Bulldog’s leading scorer Alex Knox tried to send an equalizer into the corner of the net. However, Atkinson preserved the Tigers’ lead with a diving deflection save, securing their lead going into half time.
“I think in the first half, the adrenaline was flowing and we overwhelmed them with our energy, speed and quality of play,” defender Ryan Banard (sophomore) said. “I believe it was the best half of soccer we played all year.”
Despite commanding the ball throughout the first half and applying constant pressure on defense, Occidental seemed to come out slow to start the final 45 minutes of play. Redlands quickly capitalized on the uncharacteristic Tigers play and tied the game in the 50th minute off of a throw in that Occidental was unable to clear.
“We were a completely different team after halftime,” Burdon said. “We went from playing our game, fast with intensity, to just falling kind of flat.”
The Bulldogs offense continued to push the ball into Occidental territory and attempted to take the lead on several occasions before Redlands’s player Matt Speegle fired a loose ball past Atkinson, giving the Bulldogs their first lead of the game. After giving up the lead, the Tigers continued to struggle offensively, as they only managed to take one on shot goal during the second half.
But despite their lack of offensive rhythm, the Tiger defense seemed to be holding until a foul in their box gave Redlands a penalty kick. The Bulldogs were able to convert the penalty into a 76th minute goal, putting Occidental at a two-goal deficit.
“I did not think we started off particularly bad in the second half, they just got two lucky goals off of set pieces where the ball just happened to bounce their way,” Banard said. “It was a tough pill to swallow and consequently was hard for the rest of the guys not to get deflated.”
This is the second year in a row that the Bulldogs have knocked the Tigers out of the semifinals of the SCIAC playoffs and the third time Occidental has lost to Redlands this year. Redlands went on to defeat La Verne in the SCIAC championship match.
Despite the tough loss and having several of their top players missing the majority of the season, the Tigers still recorded one of the best seasons in Occidental men’s soccer history. They outscored their opponents 55-11 and even made their way into the NCAA Division III top 25 rankings.
“I know we have a special group, with special men who know that achieving excellence and making a distinctive impact on everyone we work with is what this is all about,” head coach Rod Lafaurie said. “And we did that, day in and day out.”
*Tonetti is a Weekly staff member.