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Monday, May 20, 2024

Middlebury men's soccer triumphs on home grounds, advances through first two rounds of NCAA Tournament

The men's soccer team will face SUNY Cortland in the NCAA quarterfinals. Courtesy of Will Costello.
The men's soccer team will face SUNY Cortland in the NCAA quarterfinals. Courtesy of Will Costello.

The men’s soccer team scored a pair of huge wins this past weekend by advancing through the first and second stages of the national tournament. Despite an untimely exit from the NESCAC playoffs, Middlebury’s undefeated regular season was enough to earn hosting rights for the first two rounds of the NCAA Division III tournament at South Street Field. The picturesque mountain setting played host to three action-packed matches, with the lineup featuring Middlebury, Babson College, Johns Hopkins University and Western New England University. This marked the Panther's sixteenth appearance and sixth consecutive entry on the national stage.

The Middlebury men's team launched the tournament on Saturday, Nov. 11, by beating Western New England 3–0, led by two goals from Jordan Saint-Louis ’24. The excitement built as the second round on Sunday, Nov. 12 commenced, as Middlebury faced off against Johns Hopkins, who had defeated Babson the previous day 4–3. This was the first encounter in history between the two men’s soccer programs. Two first-half goals from Tyler Payne ’25 and Kyle Nilsson ’25 powered Middlebury to a 2–1 victory over a skilled Johns Hopkins, securing their advancement to the third round. 

“It's not often that we get the chance to host a national tournament, and so having the opportunity to play these big games in front of our family, friends, and supporters at home was a special feeling,” said midfielder Eujin Chae ’25. “Personally, I really enjoyed playing in front of the large crowd and seeing familiar faces on the sidelines.”

The men’s soccer team ventured into the tournament with a 12–1–4 overall record, boasting an unbeaten 11–0–4 mark during the regular season — the program's best since 1998. This run earned them the top seed in the NESCAC Tournament, a feat they have not achieved since 2008. Although their NESCAC journey ended in the semifinals, facing #20 Tufts in a hard-fought 2–1 defeat, the team's resilience and determination were evident throughout the weekend. 

“The team played well under a lot of pressure to perform after losing and not living up to our best performances last week during NESCAC championship weekend,” Nilsson said. “Every guy has a way of getting in their mindset for postseason games, especially national tournament ones, and everyone was able to enter their mindset with the right mentality and bring it on the field.”

The Panthers clinched an at-large bid to the 2023 NCAA tournament, which is composed of 64 teams from a pool of over 400 in Division III. This exclusive field is composed of 41 teams that earned automatic qualification, complemented by an additional selection of 23 teams chosen at-large. The at-large qualification process is overseen by a selection committee, assessing teams based on factors like regional rankings, strength of schedule, quality wins, unfavorable losses, results against similar opponents and head-to-head matchups.

Looking ahead, Middlebury has its sights on securing the program's second NCAA Championship win, having last won in 2007 when Head Coach Alex Elias ’07 was a player on the team. As the journey continues, the team is set to face SUNY Cortland in Amherst, Mass., during the sectional match-up on Nov. 18.

“I think it’s pretty obvious to state that to win the NCAA tournament is the ultimate goal, but it’s important to acknowledge the less recognized team goals of unity, culture, and respect amongst the squad,” Nilsson said. “We pride ourselves in our togetherness in even the toughest moments, and that has shone and will shine through the rest of the postseason.” 

The team will certainly face tough moments on the road ahead, but if they can preserve their impressive team chemistry, the Panthers could claw their way to a national title.