After two halves and two overtimes, the Elon men's soccer team defeated Clemson 4-1 in penalty kicks to advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament. It was the Phoenix's first NCAA tournament win in the history of the men's soccer program.
Less than two weeks ago in the quarterfinals of the Southern Conference tournament, the Elon University men’s soccer team faced a penalty kick shootout against Appalachian State University with a chance to advance to the semifinals.
Against the Mountaineers, Phoenix senior defensemen Nick Butterly stepped up and put it in the back of the net. The Phoenix advanced and the crowed joined in on the celebration, catching a shirtless Butterly and burying him in a massive dog pile.
Fast forward to Thursday, Nov. 21. The Phoenix found themselves in the exact same situation. This time, though, winning meant advancing to the second round of NCAA Tournament play, a feat never before accomplished by any team wearing the maroon and gold.
The Phoenix were tied at one with Clemson University after two halves and two overtimes, and had a 3-1 advantage in the ensuing penalty kick shootout. This time, it was junior forward Jason Waterman who had a chance to send his team to the next round of play with a goal.
As Waterman walked toward the ball, he said he could think of nothing but executing a skill he had been practicing since early childhood.
“I was really just thinking about how many times I’ve practiced PKs,” Waterman said. “Since I was 3- or 4-years old, I’ve been putting the ball on the spot and trying to find the corner. So, I just tried to have confidence in all the practice.”
Waterman followed his own advice, stepping up and slotting a low, hard shot past Tigers’ sophomore goalkeeper Chris Glodack, who had replaced freshman starter Andrew Tarbell between the pipes, giving Elon a 4-1 shootout victory.
It hadn’t always looked so promising for the Phoenix, especially in the game’s first 15 minutes, a span in which they were dominated by the Tigers. However, the Tigers couldn’t find the back of the net, giving the Phoenix a chance to get themselves going.
Phoenix head coach Darren Powell said he believes his team’s slow start was a byproduct of Clemson’s talent rather than his own team’s jitters, playing their first postseason home game in front of 3,348 fans.
“You’re playing an ACC team,” Powell said. “They’re one of the top college programs in the country with a great tradition and a great history and they came out with a game plan to out us under pressure and we just needed to get on the ball and calm down a little bit and find our way into the game.”
The Phoenix, fortunate to survive the first half after being outshot 8-1, broke through and scored the game’s first goal in the 58th minute on a nice finish from Waterman from the right side of the box on a through ball from sophomore defenseman Nathan Diehl.
“It was a great combo play,” Waterman said of Diehl’s assist. “We combined on top of the box and I just timed my run to make sure I wasn’t offsides and by the time the ball was at my feet I didn’t have any more time to think and I just shot.”
However, despite playing stifling defense for the majority of the match, the Phoenix broke down and allowed freshman midfielder Thales De Mello Moreno to control a pass from senior midfielder Jack Metcalf and hit a one-timer from just outside the box that snuck past the outstretched hands of Phoenix junior goalkeeper Nathan Dean and in to knot the game at 1.
It was then, after neither team could score in either overtime session, that Powell said believes his team channeled their shootout success against the Mountaineers to do the same to the Tigers.
“When you’ve been in that moment before, the experiences all help you,” Powell said. “I felt that the guys were very confident. In that moment, they all kept their cool.”
Next up for the Phoenix is a trip to Los Angeles to play the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed UCLA Sunday, Nov. 24, at 11 p.m. ET. It’s a game Powell said he knows will be difficult due to the immense talent of the opposition.
“(We hope to) represent this university, and the Southern Conference, to the best of our capabilities on Sunday,” Powell said. “Hopefully, we deliver an upset.”