By Rob Rose
Fueled by a five-game winning streak, the men’s soccer team won the MAAC Championship with upsets over the top two seeds in the conference and became the lowest-seeded team to win the MAAC since Fairfield in 2014.
Rider, as the No. 5 seed, defeated defending-champion and top seed Fairfield, 2-0, in the semifinals on Nov. 8 before a 1-0 victory over second-seed Quinnipiac in the championship game on Nov. 11.
After a rough start this season, with losses in five of its first seven games, and having barely reached the postseason, Rider adopted the mantra of another team that defied the odds to win a championship in 2018 — the “Underdog” Super Bowl Champions, the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I don’t think I have ever been involved with a season like this before,” said Head Coach Charlie Inverso. “The chances of us making the playoffs were slim. Nobody believed in us; everyone was giving up on us. For these guys to make a run at the end, I give them a lot of credit.”
After a scoreless first half against Quinnipiac, sophomore forward Pablo DeCastro unleashed a strike from outside the penalty area in the 55th minute to give the Broncs their third MAAC Championship in four years.
Junior back Emmanuel Kouma sent a pass down the right side of the field that was carried toward midfield by junior forward Clement Bourret.
The forward fed the ball to midfield where DeCastro wrapped his right foot around the ball and placed it into the bottom right corner of the net, past the outstretched arm of the goalkeeper.
The score was DeCastro’s team-leading eighth goal of the season and his fourth goal during the Broncs’ five-game winning streak to secure the MAAC title. DeCastro scored eight goals in each of his two seasons at Rider.
“He’s a big part of what we’re doing,” said Inverso. “He’s a good finisher, sometimes he has a hard time finding where the goals are, but he hasn’t in the last couple games.”
Rider became the third team in MAAC history to reach the title game in four-consecutive seasons, along with Loyola (1989-1997) and Fairfield (1998-2002).
“[The team] said, ‘OK, we get in and then we make history,’” said Inverso. “You say that, and it’s really optimistic thinking, but now these guys really believe in themselves.”
The Broncs’ fifth title tied them with Fairfield for second in the conference’s history and trail only former-MAAC member Loyola’s 12 championships.
The five consecutive shutouts that propelled Rider from the No. 7 seed and potentially a missed postseason on the final day of the regular season, to the championship game, were engineered by sophomore goalkeeper Pablo Gatinois.
In his first season with the Broncs after transferring from Oklahoma State, Gatinois recorded seven shutouts and tied for the best season in Rider history with goalkeeper Keith Richardson during the 1998 season.
Gatinois made a pair of saves late in the title game against Quinnipiac that allowed Rider to leave with the trophy. Against the Bobcats on Oct. 17, the Broncs allowed two goals in the game’s final seven minutes to suffer a 2-1 defeat, and in the rematch, it was almost deja vu.
“The situation was very similar,” said Gatinois. “I felt very confident during the entire game and thank God I could save [the shots] and help the team win the game.”
With seven minutes left in the match, Quinnipiac sent a cross from the right sideline into the box that was put on goal by junior forward Eamon Whelan, the MAAC’s leading scorer with 13 goals. Gatinois leaped to his right side to deny the shot and the rebound by Whelan went wide of the net.
The goalkeeper recorded a career-high 10 saves in the title game and shut out the Bobcats despite being peppered with 19 shots in the contest.
Gatinois, as well as junior backs Arthur Herpreck and Sylvain Coco, were named to the All-MAAC Championship Team while graduate student forward Elliott Otmani was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.
Otmani earned the honor for the second time, after he received the award in the 2015 MAAC Championship and reached the MAAC Championship game for the fourth-consecutive season.
Quinnipiac had not lost a game at home since Aug. 24 against Boston College and had a 7-1-2 record in Hamden, Connecticut.
In the semifinal round, Rider broke another illustrious winning streak. Fairfield had a 21-game unbeaten streak against MAAC opponents, including an undefeated 2018 conference season. The Stags defeated the Broncs in the 2017 MAAC Championship game, 1-0.
Otmani led Rider to the semifinal victory over Fairfield, as he had done so many times in the past. The forward recorded a goal and an assist in the match and became the third Bronc in program history with 30 goals and 20 assists.
As the MAAC Champions, Rider earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Broncs had reached the NCAA Tournament in the 1997, 1998, 2015 and 2016 seasons, with an 0-4 record in those contests.
Rider’s first round opponent was the No. 16 ranked team in the nation and Mid-American Conference Champion, Akron. The Broncs will travel to Ohio for a 7 p.m. match on Nov. 15.
The Zips advanced to the semifinals of the 2017 College Cup and had reached the NCAA Tournament each season since 2007 and won the national championship in 2010.
“It’s going to be an exciting game because we know [Akron] is a top program in the country,” said Otmani. “We want to play against the top teams, represent the school well and come back with a result if we can.”
Follow Rob Rose on Twitter.