Before junior forward James Brace knocked in a loose ball in the 67th minute to give the Elon University men’s soccer team a 1-0 victory over West Virginia University Sept. 14 at Rudd Field, the Phoenix had gone back-to-back games without finding the back of the net.
Not since Brace had converted a penalty kick in the eighth minute of a nearly identical 1-0 victory over Winthrop University on Sept. 5 at the UNCW Classic in Wilmington had the Phoenix scored a goal — nearly 350 minutes.
“It’s been a long time coming,” junior defenseman Nathan Diehl said. “It’s hard as a center back to watch chance after chance missed but it’s finally starting to come together. It’s nice to get one in the back of the net to have a little reassurance.”
Throughout the first half, it seemed as though it’d be yet another game of missed opportunities and frustratingly off-target shots for the Phoenix, as it blew a myriad of quality chances in and around the Mountaineers box.
The biggest miss came in the 28th minute, when Diehl headed a cross from junior midfielder Miguel Salazar just over the crossbar and out of play, a golden opportunity that had gone by the wayside.
LAST TIME OUT: Elon finishes in scoreless tie with Florida International
But midway through the second half, as the likelihood of another scoreless outing loomed, Brace saved the day. Salazar put a perfect corner into the box for sophomore midfielder Rett Webb, whose shot from point-blank range was stopped by West Virginia senior goalkeeper Lee Johnston. The ball trickled out of Johnston’s hands, though, and Brace rushed forward and cleaned up the loose ball.
“It was a great ball in,” Brace said. “When you get balls like that in, you just have to go and attack it. Rett did very well to get a shot off and I followed in in case the goalkeeper parried it and I was there to tap it in.”
From there, the Phoenix defense, which has not allowed a goal in regulation since Aug. 29 against Stetson University, anchored down and repelled the Mountaineers’ revitalized attack, which had been dormant for most of the game but had come alive after Elon’s goal.
The Phoenix outshot the Mountaineers 16-12, despite West Virginia taking one more corner. Elon goalkeeper Nathan Dean recorded his second shutout in a row and fourth of the season, moving his career total to 20 clean sheets.
“We try not to take him for granted but sometimes we do,” Diehl said. “When you have someone like that behind you, that’s almost as much reassurance as having four people in front of the ball. We can rely on him for four of five big saves a game.”
The win improves the Phoenix to 3-2-1 on the season, while the Mountaineers fall to 3-3.
The Phoenix will hit the road for a brief two-game road trip, where it will play Radford University on Sept. 20 and Coastal Carolina University on Sept. 26.