A season ago, Elon University’s men’s soccer playoff run ended in heartbreak with a 3-2 loss to Hofstra University in the Colonial Athletic Association championship tournament final. While all 30 members of the team were forced to move on, the 21 players that returned to the locker room for the next season would not forget that loss.
Now, less than a year later, the Phoenix claim sole possession of the CAA regular season title for the first time in program history and look to make up for last season’s misstep. Senior forward Mason Duval said that the loss didn’t linger in the locker room — instead, it made the team that much stronger and hungrier.
“That was a big motivation,” Duval said. “It definitely fueled the fire.”
After rallying past 10 tough teams and winning nine hard-fought conference games, head coach Marc Reeves said he was proud of the group for emerging on top of the extreme conference.
“It’s an incredible achievement by this group,” Reeves said. “We will celebrate it and move on to the next phase which is the tournament.”
The regular season title will bring both a new banner and the postseason home, as the entire CAA championship tournament will run through Rudd Field. However, while the achievements look nice on paper, graduate student and goalkeeper Ryan Bilichuk said the placement means a lot more than just where the tournament is set to take place.
“It’s an advantage, but it’s earned,” Bilichuk said. “We worked so hard throughout the whole season for this moment, and we are definitely going to capitalize on it.”
Having home field doesn’t just save the team from travel fatigue. It also allows for familiarity with the training equipment when it matters most. Reeves also hopes the Phoenix faithful will flood the Rudd bleachers on Sunday for Elon’s semifinal match.
“It’s a massive deal not having to travel, being in the comfort of your own training environment,” Reeves said. “We are hoping we get a good crowd as well on Sunday.”
On top of earning the right to host the tournament, the Phoenix also received a bye to the semifinals and is only two matches away from winning it all. Reeves emphasized the importance of the Phoenix having an extra week to prepare for its next game. The Phoenix will face the winner of the Nov. 6 Northeastern and Drexel contest.
“We will use the week to prepare correctly as we always do,” Reeves said. “Being regular season champions is unbelievable, but there’s six great teams in it right now, and it could be anyone’s.”
Duval also said it is vital to have a week to rest after competing in last year’s tournament without one. Previously, the Phoenix faced a quick turnaround after advancing from the quarterfinals to the semifinals.
“It’s not like you can save yourself for each game, you have to give 110%,” Duval said. “Us being able to rest and then play against a team that’s going to be more tired will be an advantage.”
While the Phoenix returned 21 players from the 2021 team, Bilichuk wasn’t one of them, as he was brought on during the off-season from the University of South Carolina. Regardless, Bilichuk only added to an already elite Elon team with his potent net protection and was one of the key reasons the regular season title was achieved.
He said it is an honor to bring such a momentous accolade to the team and university, even if this is his first season representing the maroon and gold.
“I haven’t been here for four years like the rest of these guys, but the honor is still the same,” Bilichuk said. “To be a part of this group is something that’s going to tie us in the history books forever.”
Although only a year apart from last season’s team, the improved team chemistry has been the biggest difference this time around, Duval said, and this past experience will allow the Phoenix to soar above the competition in the tournament.
“We have a lot more chemistry. The guys on the field, we are just in tune with each other,” Duval said. “Our togetherness and being in tune with each other will lead to our success.”
The regular season title wasn’t the only way Bilichuk and the Phoenix broke into the history books last Saturday. The 0-0 tie marked the team’s tenth shutout on the season, tying for the most shutouts an Elon team has ever recorded in a single season. While getting that recognition is tremendous for the program, Bilichuk said winning the tournament is the team’s biggest concern.
“It’s a great feeling,” Bilichuk said. “But I want to continue to win games for the team. That’s what matters the most. Just keep winning and see how far we can go.”
If the Phoenix are able to cap off the historic season with a tournament victory, it will find itself in the NCAA tournament. However, Duval, as well as the rest of the team, recognizes there is a lot of soccer to be played until then.
“Nothing matters in the past,” Duval said. “You just have to focus on the present.”