NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – The No. 12 Merrimack men's soccer team tied up the contest with a quick goal less than three minutes into the second half, but the visiting 15th-ranked Southern New Hampshire Penmen rallied to retake the lead moments later, as the Warriors saw their historic 13-game unbeaten streak come to a heartbreaking end after falling in the Northeast-10 Championship Finals, 2-1, on Sunday afternoon at Martone-Mejail Field.
Suffering just their third defeat of the season and the second to Southern New Hampshire – the last team that they lost to back on Sept. 11 – the Warriors sink to 14-3-2 on the season after going nearly two full months without posting a loss. The Penmen (17-3), meanwhile, take the NE-10 crown after falling, 1-0, to Franklin Pierce last season.
Senior forward and NE-10 Player of the Year Franklin Lemus Pena (Revere, Mass.) and sophomore goalkeeper Jose Silva (Northborough, Mass.) were both named to the All-Championship Team following the conclusion of the game, while the latter allowed two goals in a game for the first time since that identical 2-1 defeat at home against the Penmen back on Sept. 11.
"I'm very proud of this team, I'm proud of their effort, and it's still unbelievable to think how far we've come as the season has progressed," head coach Tony Martone said afterward. "Today hurts, that's for sure, but we will use it as a lesson to help us move forward and get back on track hopefully next week."
The visitors dominated most of the first half's possession and took a lead midway through the frame, as Sam Kelley deposited a loose ball in front of the goalmouth into the upper-left corner of the twine in the 26th minute, putting the Penmen on top, 1-0, in the game's early goings.
Despite surrendering an 11-5 advantage in shot attempts to Southern New Hampshire in the first stanza alone, the Warriors remained in the match and slowly began to generate some momentum toward the end of the first half. With time ticking away, senior captain Alejandro Fuchs (Caracas, Venezuela) unwound a shot from about 35 yards out that just sailed high, but aside from that chance the Warriors did not see many golden scoring opportunities within the first 45 minutes of play.
Just over a minute into the second half, it appeared as if it was going to be more of the same from the Penmen, who nearly doubled the lead if not for a huge save by Silva on a shot from point-blank range from about 12 yards out early in the frame.
The Warriors, however, took advantage of the Penmen's inability to capitalize, leading to a scoring chance of their own. Freshman forward Douglas Searl (Westford, Mass.), who scored the game-winner over Franklin Pierce in the NE-10 Semifinals on Friday, possessed the ball near the goal down the right side and sent a square pass all the way across the length of the end line. Waiting to receive the feed was classmate Augusto Silva (Hudson, Mass.), and after Southern New Hampshire goalkeeper Dom DiMaggio left his post to break up the pass attempt, the ball wound up at Silva's feet, and the rookie tucked it into the net to tie the match at 1-1 early in the second frame.
Those heroics were short-lived, however, as the Penmen retook the lead just over two minutes later. After a set piece service into the box, Jordan Branco emerged with the loose ball and sent it directly to his left, where Mohamed Toufik ripped it into the right-hand corner of the net for the game-deciding score in the 50th minute.
Merrimack thought it had a golden opportunity to tie the match about 15 minutes later, but senior back Olof Lindhe (Stockholm, Sweden) was whistled offside after receiving a feed from Lemus Pena and appeared to be alone with just the goalie to beat.
Still, the Penmen's ability to dominate long stretches of possession wound up to be the deciding factor, as the visitors finished with a 21-9 advantage in shot attempts.
Silva, to his credit, was otherwise stellar despite the two goals allowed. He finished with seven saves and spent the vast majority of the final 10 minutes playing beyond his own 18-yard line. That aggressiveness nearly led to an empty-net goal for Southern New Hampshire, but the final whistle blew with the home side ultimately behind by a goal, granting the Penmen the title.
DiMaggio – who was named the NE-10 Championship Most Outstanding Player – finished with two saves and saw a solid defense in front of him clear away a pair of potential scoring chances for the Warriors. Lemus Pena and Fuchs each led the home side with three shot attempts apiece, while SNHU captain Chris Tsonis posted a game-high six shots for the visitors.
The very physical game between two long-time rivals saw the whistle blown 45 times and five total yellow cards issued – three to the visitors and two to Merrimack. Southern New Hampshire also held a 7-2 lead in corner kicks over the course of the match, as well.
Next up, the Warriors will learn their NCAA Tournament destination on Monday, Nov. 5. Beginning at 7 p.m. on www.NCAA.com, the NCAA Division II Tournament Selection Show will pinpoint where, when and who Merrimack will be playing against in the championship's first round late next week.
Merrimack is virtually guaranteed the program's first-ever NCAA Tournament berth, and the first ever appearance under Martone's 31-year tenure.