Senior defender Nathan Diehl’s game-winning header in the second period of overtime against College of Charleston Oct. 31 clinched the Elon University men’s soccer team a share of the regular Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) title and its place as the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.
Though for Diehl and the rest of the Elon squad, the win secured something even more valuable: rest.
“Having a more than a week break before the start of the tournament is a godsend for a lot of us,” Diehl said. “I know I, along with all of the other guys, are going to take full advantage of it.”
The Phoenix will take on No. 3 seed the University of Delaware in the semifinals Nov. 13. The two teams met in Newark, Delaware Sept. 26, with Elon earning a 1-0 victory.
Head coach Chris Little sees some familiar traits in the Blue Hens.
“Delaware is maybe quite similar to us,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of smaller, technical players that are very creative and dynamic.”
The Phoenix was sluggish in its regular season finale, losing 2-0 to Radford University Nov. 4. Little said it was easy for Radford to sit back and defend its lead, having scored early in each half. While Radford often defended with 10 players behind the ball, the Phoenix was unable to create many clear scoring chances.
“We looked a little tired,” Little said. “It’s been a long season. We’ve had a frequency of intense, tough games back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back, and that’s hard.”
Elon has lost three of its last four matches, including an overtime loss to Duke University and a narrow 1-0 defeat to Hofstra University, the host of the CAA conference tournament. Elon’s lone win during that stretch was the overtime victory over College of Charleston.
Diehl said he and the rest of the team are not making any excuses for the poor finish to the regular season.
“There’s nothing to do now except to move forward, learn from our mistakes and come out stronger from it,” Diehl said. “At this point in the season every team is really fatigued, it’s just who grinds through it the best.”
The Phoenix is joined by Delaware, James Madison University and host Hofstra in the semifinals, which will be played on Hofstra University Soccer Stadium’s turf field. The Phoenix was able to get somewhat comfortable playing on the turf after facing the Pride Oct. 24 in Hempstead, New York. Diehl said while the turf does add to Hofstra’s homefield advantage, he’s not putting any added emphasis on the pitch’s surface.
“We’ve all, at this point in our soccer careers, played on turfs many times before,” Diehl said. “It’s just a mental battle — you can’t let it get to your head.”
The loss to Radford cost Elon a chance for its 14th regular season victory and its national ranking (the Phoenix has previously been ranked as high as No. 8 in the nation). Little said sitting on 13 wins is a good position to be in, but he can’t get too invested in projecting whether Elon will qualify for the NCAA tournament because it is out of his hands.
“Our mindset is to go win the conference tournament and to not leave any doubt,” Little said. “That’s the objective to go there and win the tournament and know you have an automatic bid.”
Even with eyes on the CAA championship, Diehl said the team is in no position to look past its semifinal matchup.
“A lot of us want blood when we think about Hofstra, but we’re a long way from facing them,” he said. “Until then, we have to just have to focus on what’s in front of our faces.”