Fordham University had plenty of reasons to celebrate during their tournament run. (Photo courtesy of Fordham SID)
Just reaching the dance is a big deal for many NCAA Division I teams, especially one that was eliminated in the semifinals of its conference.
But the Fordham University men lived the dream and then some as an unseeded team in the competition.
The Rams (14-6-3) became the D-I darlings with a magical run, reaching the Elite Eight for the first time.
Unseeded teams traditionally do not reach the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division I tournament, especially when they’re playing on the road and down in Atlantic Coast Conference country.
No mean feat at all.
The Rams, who reached the semifinals of the Atlantic 10, not only got an invitation to the dance, they got to host a game.
They started their drive with a 3-2 comeback win over St. Francis Brooklyn at home Nov. 16. Joergen Oland scored six minutes into extratime to lift Fordham to victory after center back Matthew Lewis headed home a free kick in the 81st minute to equalize it at 2-2.
Then the degree of difficulty became much more difficult, given their opponents and venue.
They followed that up with a 1-0 victory at 11th-seeded University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. Nov. 19. Senior midfielder Eric Ohlendorf tallied the lone goal in the 83rd minute.
“Winning at UVA was something that doesn’t happen too often,” head coach Jim McElderry said. “They win the majority of their games in the NCAA tournament at home because they usually do so well. A lot of teams have lost there. So that was a big deal for us to win, 1-0. We felt we played well, battled hard, scored a good goal through the run of play. It wasn’t a set piece or a penalty.”
And then they pulled out an 8-7 shootout triumph after playing to a 2-2 draw at sixth-seeded Duke University in Durham, N.C. in the Sweet 16 Nov. 25. Jordan Black, who hadn’t played a second this season, converted the winning PK as goalkeeper Rashid Nuhu made his third save of the shootout on Max Moser to seal the upset.
“They’ve had the best season they’ve had in seven or eight years,” McElderry said. “Again, it was a daunting task for us. And that game was rollercoaster, a little bit different from the UVA game.”
Fordham’s run came to an end Dec. 2 with a 2-1 defeat at the third-seeded University of North Carolina in Cary, N.C. The visitors battled hard and held on until Alan Winn’s winning goal in the 80th minute in their third game at an ACC school in 14 days.
“The initial feeling is disappointment that we’re not going to play another game,” McElderry said. “Following such a tight game, 1-1 in the second half, we had just as good a chance to win the game as they did and we’re disappointed. Once we have time to step back, we can appreciate everything our seniors have done and the entire 2017 group in order to advance in this tournament, to see all the people that came down to see and support us, just real happy with how the guys conducted themselves through this tournament.”
The Rams’ attack was paced by the Loebe brothers of Germany. Senior forward Jannik Loebe recorded nine goals and four assists, while junior midfielder Janos Loebe contributed seven goals and nine assists.
Lewis anchored a defense that conceded 20 goals in 23 games in front of Nuhu, who played every minute of the season while registering 11 shutouts.
In the process, the Rams became the first Fordham men’s team to reach the final eight of a national championship tournament. The previous best was the 1970-71 basketball team, which qualified for the final 16 of the 1971 NCAA tournament.
Since the St. John’s University men captured the Division I crown in 1996, few, if any metropolitan area teams have enjoyed such a run in the soccer competition.
Fordham was ranked 11th in the final United Soccer Coaches D-I poll.
Saturday: Story No. 7