It was fitting the first team the Elon University men’s soccer team played in its final Southern Conference opener was its bitterest of rivals and a school jumping conferences like the Phoenix after the 2013-2014 academic year.
The Phoenix, ranked No. 21 in the nation in the most recent polls, beat Appalachian State University 1-0 in a physical, emotionally charged game that saw several small skirmishes among players and both coaches yelling at both the referees and each other.
“We pride ourselves on mastering the mental aspect of the game and we know that (Appalachian) State is really going to test that,” said senior midfielder Daniel Lovitz. “They’re one of the games every year that we know will be a test of our mental fortitude and we’re glad we were able to not get caught up in the (confrontations) and really just stick to our plan.”
Everyone knew the significance of this game, both for this season and beyond. This was the last meeting between the two schools for the foreseeable future, and that was not lost on any of the players or coaches, who didn’t want their last meeting with the other result in a disheartening loss.
“(Beating App) couldn’t be any better,” Lovitz said. “We knew the first (conference) game was going to be monumental in terms of our statement of intent this year and what we showed tonight is that we’re going to be a very tough team to beat. One of our goals was to win the league and get to the tournament and this was a great first step.”
After the first 20-plus minutes brought nothing but frustrating misfires at goal, the Phoenix were able to break through in the 30th minute on sophomore midfielder James Brace’sfourth goal of the season.
Senior midfielder Matt Wescoe served a ball over the head of the Mountaineers’ defense to junior forward Jason Waterman. Waterman, seeing the Mountaineers’ senior goalkeeper Danny Free in front of him, centered the ball to Brace, who was able to beat a scrambling Free and score the game’s lone goal.
The Phoenix then did what they’ve become costumed to do. They bunkered down in their own end and prevented the Mountaineers from scoring the equalizer. The result was another one goal win in which the Phoenix kept their opponent off the scoreboard, thefifth such time they’ve done that this season.
“It really is incredible to get this result at home,” Lovitz said. “At the same time, these one-goal games are far from ideal but once you get the first goal it’s about being sound defensively. You just stay buckled down and hope for the best.”
Phoenix head coach Darren Powell praised his team’s defensive performance, particularly pointing to his back four, who were able to keep junior goalkeeper Nathan Dean from having to make too many stressful saves.
“It’s very important that we get our defensive shape right,” Powell said. “When our structure is correct, it makes it very hard for the opposition to break us down. We’re quite happy when Nathan has less to do.”
Powell, however, didn’t find any added significance to his team’s victory. His focus is already on the Phoenix’s next opponent, Wofford College, who the Phoenix will play Saturday, Oct. 12 in Spartanburg, S.C.
“Our focus is on the Southern Conference,” Powell said. “There’s a long way to go in that season and I’m pleased that we’ve managed to start the campaign with three points.”