It was an unprecedented season no one on last year’s Elon University men’s soccer team will forget.
The Phoenix went 13-4-1 in the regular season, including a 2-1 victory against sixth-ranked Coastal Carolina University and a comeback win over local rival University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Elon then swept through the Southern Conference tournament, beating Wofford College 1-0 in the championship game on then-junior forward Jason Waterman’s goal in overtime. The win gave the Phoenix its third straight conference title and third straight NCAA Tournament berth.
The season took an even more remarkable turn after the first-round NCAA Tournament game against Clemson University.
In front of more than 3,000 maroon-and gold-clad fans packed along the fence and bleachers, the teams tied at 1-1 in regulation and two hard-fought overtime periods, which sent the game into penalty kicks.
In that shootout, two Clemson players missed their penalty kicks, and Waterman had the chance to do what no other Phoenix player had ever done before — kick his team to its first NCAA tournament victory.
He coolly stepped up to the penalty spot and slotted the ball past the Tigers’ goalkeeper and into the lower left side of the goal, playing the role of hero for the second time in as many weeks. He ran to the other end of the field, ripping off his jersey and twirling it like a pinwheel as hundreds of fans spilled onto the field to celebrate with him and his teammates.
Although the Phoenix would lose 4-0 to the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, the University of California at Los Angeles three days later, no one who had witnessed Waterman’s winning kick and ensuing celebration would soon forget the enormity of the moment.
Now, first-year head coach Chris Little, an assistant under former head coach Darren Powell from 2010-2012, is left with the unenviable task of leading the program forward after what many consider the greatest season in program history.
“Every year is a new team,” Little said. “Every team starts a new journey for itself. This team has to shape their own journey and build upon the success we’ve had over the last several years, and that’s an exciting challenge.”
The task won’t be as difficult as it may appear because the Phoenix is a mature team that knows it can’t ride on its previous successes.
“I don’t think it’ll be that difficult to move on,” Waterman, now a senior, said. “We’ll take the success we had last year and think ‘How did we get there?’ and look at the keys that made us successful, because the journey we took to get there is more important than the end result.”
Elon doesn’t want to completely turn the page on last season’s magic, but rather build and carry over the confidence and momentum they gained at the end of the season in order to maintain its success.
“We look at this season individually and don’t want to dwell too much on the past,” said senior goalkeeper Nathan Dean. “But we can definitely look to last season to give us confidence and use the momentum we provided ourselves moving forward.”
Little said he isn’t worried about his team starting slow this season because of a hangover from last year’s postseason magic. He trusts his team is experienced enough to turn the page on last fall and refocus for the upcoming season.
Little doesn’t sense there will be an issue moving forward because of the team’s strong leadership and hunger for continued success on the national stage.
“It’s about building upon last year,” Little said. “The players’ aspirations and our aspirations as a coaching staff are the same. We want to be in contention for the national tournament and competing for conference success.”
Despite winning three SoCon titles, making three NCAA tournament appearances and winning the program’s first tournament game, there’s still one lofty goal they have yet to accomplish.
“The senior class wants to leave as the winningest class in program history,” Waterman said. “We look at last year and say ‘We won some things and did really well,’ but we want this year to be even more special.”
To do so, the seniors must lead Elon out from under the shadow of last season’s brilliance and work toward making the roars heard reverberating around Rudd Field last fall a regular occurrence for years to come.