Locals players aid SNHU's title quest
MANCHESTER - While morphing into a perennial national power, the Southern New Hampshire University men's soccer team staunchly maintained its hometown roots.
The Penmen, currently ranked 10th in the nation and busy preparing for their third Sweet 16 NCAA Division II tournament appearance in four seasons Friday night at home, boasts a roster of talented players representing seven countries and five different states.
Yet, three strong SNHU contributors once earned New Hampshire Union Leader All-State soccer accolades when playing soccer for their Manchester high schools.
The second-seeded Penmen (18-3) host fourth-seeded UMass Lowell (14-6-1) at 6 p.m. in the East Region Final. Erie, Pa., neighbors Mercyhurst University, the No. 3 seed (15-5-1) and top-seeded Gannon University (13-5) meet in the Atlantic Region final at 2:30 p.m.
The two region winners return to SNHU's Larkin Field at 1 p.m. Sunday with the winner advancing to the NCAA Division II semifinals, beginning a week from today in Evans, Ga. Sunday's winner is two victories away from a national championship.
The Penmen have qualified for NCAA play in 18 of the past 25 seasons, having taken home the national title in 1986 and reaching the championship game in 2002.
"It's pretty cool that you can compete for a national title without ever leaving the city," said SNHU's Sam Kelley. Before starting as a Penman back, this Bedford resident starred for Manchester West. The bearded 6-foot-1, 180-pound junior wins a lot of balls at midfield and serves as a calm presence while thwarting opponent's counter attacks.
Manchester Memorial alum Christian Rodriguez, a senior, and sophomore Yannick Kabala, a former Manchester Central standout, log considerable playing time up front. Kabala (2 goals, 1 assist) is tactically solid and adept at making short range midfield passes. Rodriguez (5 assists) has consistently created scoring chances on the left side of the pitch.
The three were Granite State all staters with offers to play elsewhere, but ultimately settled at SNHU.
Additionally, Concord's Mark Painchaud, a graduate student and backup keeper and freshman midfielder Ryan Simpson, a Manchester Memorial graduate, are Penmen.
"As we succeed there's definitely more pressure to attract some of the best available talent in this country and internationally," said SNHU coach Marc Hubbard, a former Oyster River of Durham player.
"Having been New Hampshire born and bred, it's important for me to attract quality local players. And there is a lot of good soccer being played in Manchester," said Hubbard, in his fifth season at SNHU. The Penmen are 77-17-13 in his tenure, while going 11-4-5 in the postseason.
Lebanon's Jon Brockway, a back, and Merrimack keeper Jon Mayo made solid contributions on the 2011 Penmen team that reached the Sweet 16 round of the tourney. Ethan Lapierre, a Manchester Memorial graduate, scored three goals and assisted on four others, helping the 2009 squad advance to the nation's quarterfinal round.
On Friday, SNHU will be facing UMass-Lowell for the third time this season, having shutout the River Hawks the previous two occasions. The Penmen own 11 shutout victories and have surrendered just 11 goals in 21 games.
"Lowell came at us differently in each of the previous games," said Hubbard. On the first occasion, a 3-0 victory in mid-October, Lowell was in an attack mode. The last occasion, a 2-0 win in the Northeast-10 Conference tourney, the River Hawks applied less offensive pressure and strove to counter attack.
"I think we're going to see a mix of the two on Friday. And, it's important that we score first as they enter the game with a lot of confidence," said Hubbard. Lowell advanced with a 1-0 upset win over LIU-Post, the top-seeded team nationally.
SNHU wants to control possession of the ball with players like Rodriguez and Kabala setting up potential scoring strikes while Kelley and his defender teammates keep a wary eye on potential counter strikes.
The Penmen are riding a six-game win streak and are 16-1 when tallying the first goal of the game. Chris Tsonis, Jordan Branco and Mohamed Toufik have scored 28 of the team's 52 goals this season, the most prolific offense since the 2002 national runner-up team.
SNHU defenders will keep tabs on River Hawks' striker Homero Morais, who has tallied 13 goals this season.
Gannon defeated Mercyhurst, 4-2, on the final day of the regular season. Gannon advanced by recording its first NCAA tourney victory since 1993. Mercyhurst last reached the third round of the tourney in 2002, and lost to the Penmen.
"Getting local players to come to SNHU has helped our overall goal of developing one of the most prominent teams in the region," said Hubbard.
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Eric Emmerling may be reached at email@example.com.