By Carlos Toro
After an exciting semifinal match that saw the Broncs beat Siena in a penalty shootout, Rider beat tournament-hosts and regular-season-champion Quinnipiac 3-1 in the championship game to win its second straight MAAC Championship.
The Broncs (13-3-3, 7-1-2 MAAC) will face Vermont in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Nov. 17.
Head Coach Charlie Inverso said he is proud of his team’s accomplishments for this year, but they will have to adjust quickly to playing in the NCAA Tournament just days removed from playing in the MAAC Championship game.
“There’s a little bit of a different feel to it,” Inverso said. “In both games, we had to grind it out. When it’s all said and done, it still takes a while to sink in. What’s different about this year is that we don’t have as much time to rest and enjoy the win. It’s weird that after the MAAC season is over, we have to play another game, but that is a good reality that we want to be in.”
Rider had a spot in the semifinals secured after finishing second in the MAAC standings during the regular season. The Broncs faced Siena in the semifinals on Nov. 9 and both teams’ offenses were on display in the match.
Both teams scored within 40 seconds of each other, starting with senior forward Christian Flath putting the Broncs on the board in the 38th minute. It was Flath’s first game back since suffering a broken nose against Siena (8-8-5, 6-3-1 MAAC) on Oct. 8. The goal was assisted by junior forward Elliott Otmani.
Inverso said having Flath back in the fold helped the team in the semifinal and final games. He also gave credit to the team’s trainer, Karen Vassalluzzo, who helped Christian recover as quickly as possible.
“Having Christian back is great and credit should go to our trainer, who might be the team MVP in the past two years, because she has gotten the team healthy at the right time in each of the past two seasons,” Inverso said.
Once Flath was confirmed to be returning to the conference tournament, Rider took a risk in how it played Flath.
“Our assistant coach Victor Kotynski thought of an idea of putting Christian up front at striker and he’s barely played that in his life,” Inverso said. “It was a little bit of a gamble, but it was great seeing Christian come back and play so well against Siena, the team that he played when his nose was broken in three different places. It was kind of like poetic justice that he scored the first goal of that game and he scored the game-winning penalty kick. It was also fitting that he got the assist on the first goal in the championship and he kept his composure in trying to get the ball to Elliott to score.”
Despite the great start, the Broncs’ fortunes quickly soured when, less than a minute after the goal, they scored an own-goal after a Siena cross.
Rider finished the first half with nine shot attempts while the Saints had seven shot attempts. About five minutes into the second half, Siena took the lead thanks to a penalty kick. Siena forward Alexander Tejera scored the second goal.
Rider’s offense then took off, trying to score the game-tying goal. Amidst the 12 shots the Broncs attempted in the second half, one of them finally found the net in the 76th minute. Clement Bourret scored thanks to an assist from junior midfielder Jose Aguinaga and Otmani.
But after that goal, no team was able to score for the remainder of regulation and in two 10-minute overtime periods, forcing the game to be decided by penalty shootout.
Since Aguinaga and Otmani couldn’t score their respective penalty kicks, junior goalkeeper Ryan Baird blocked three of Siena’s penalty kicks to give Rider the 3-1 shootout win. Flath, midfielders Fernando Pina and Adrien Huss scored for Rider.
Flath said the team still believed it could pull off the win and advance to the finals, despite an early deficit in the shoot-out.
“After we missed the first two penalties, I told the guys we are going to be fine,” Flath said. “They just need to believe in it. Anything can happen in a penalty shootout and we are very lucky having a goalkeeper like Ryan, who came up big for us all year. It was a very tough game against Siena but we left anything out there on the field and we got rewarded.”
In the championship against Quinnipiac (13-7, 8-2 MAAC), a team Rider had already defeated on the road a couple of weeks prior, Rider was in control of the game, limiting the Bobcats to just two shot attempts in the first half.
The visiting Broncs took the lead in the 42nd minute when Otmani scored. Flath was credited with the assist.
Quinnipiac tied the game in the 51st minute when Bobcats defender Conor McCoy shot the tying goal thanks to an assist from midfielder James Doig.
Bourret took it upon himself to give Rider the lead once more in the 62nd minute. Bourret dribbled the ball deep into Quinnipiac’s own field and launched a rapid-fire shot just outside Quinnipiac’s goal box between two Quinnipiac defenders to give Rider the 2-1 lead. But the Broncs did not stop at two goals scored.
With less than six minutes remaining, Aguinaga doubled the team’s lead in the 85th minute. Aguinaga raced a defender from Quinnipiac on the left side of the field to get the ball. He then dribbled the ball into the box, separating himself from a defender and scored the goal on the near-side post.
The Bobcats tried to get back into the game, driving the ball multiple times into Rider territory, but were unable to find the net as Rider celebrated its second straight conference championship.
Rider’s season started with a four-game win streak, defeating teams such as Villanova on the road and Temple at home. After the unbeaten start, the Broncs were ranked in the top 25 poll in the nation, but they hit a bit of a snag afterwards, losing their next two games and tying in the following game. Since losing at Monmouth on Oct. 4, Rider has not lost a game, a span of nine games in which Rider won seven times and tied twice.
Baird was awarded with the MAAC Championship MVP trophy in the post-game ceremonies, while Otmani, Huss and Aguinaga were named to the MAAC All-tournament team.
Inverso noted the team’s ability to play its best soccer during the second half of the season is a big reason for the Broncs winning the MAAC title the past two seasons.
“We just seem to be peaking at the right time,” Inverso said. “We only lost once in the last 13 games and I think the Marist game [on Oct. 15] is what turned it around for us. Coming from behind on the road like that gave us the boost that we needed and it was the turning point of the season. In the last two seasons, in October and November, we’ve only lost four times in 24 games.”
Vermont (13-6-1, 4-3 American East) competed in the American East Conference tournament all the way to the semifinals. They received an at-large bid from the NCAA Tournament selection committee and get to host the Broncs. If the Broncs beat Vermont, they will get a chance at revenge, facing Virginia in the second round. Virginia defeated Rider in the first round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament 2-0.
Flath said the experience from competing in last year’s NCAA tournament will prepare the team for the upcoming game against Vermont. He said the feeling around winning this year’s MAAC Tournament isn’t the same as when Rider won last year.
“It is a little bit different because we proved that it wasn’t just luck last year,” Flath said. “It is a good feeling to be part of a team that made history and hopefully the story doesn’t end anytime soon. We all believe that we can make it further than last year. Playing the defending champion last year was very exciting but I do believe that we had a different mentality. Every team in the tournament has quality and it will be very tough but we are ready and we will do our best to continue to make great things happen.”
Inverso said his team is still prepping for Vermont, but understands Rider has a tough road matchup ahead.
“We’re still finding out things about Vermont,” Inverso said. “I do know that they’re a big team and they have big players from Iceland and they’re a very solid team. The new coach at Vermont has done a really good job there.”