Southern New Hampshire University's quest for a second Division II men's soccer national title begins today with a simple theme from head coach Marc Hubbard.
"We've got to remain grounded," said Hubbard.
The NCAA semifinals kicks off at 5 p.m. when the Penmen (21-1-0) face No. 14 Rockhurst University (17-3-3) of Kansas City in the first semifinal game at Blanchard Woods Park in Evans, Ga.
The second semifinal game at 8 p.m. pits Simon Fraser of British Columbia, Canada (18-2-2) against Carson-Newman (15-5-1) of Jefferson City, Tenn. The championship game is slated for Saturday at 3 p.m.
The Penmen are in the Division II national semifinals for the third time in program history, the first two coming in 1989 and 2002. The Penmen advanced to the final in each of those years, winning the national championship in 1989 and finishing runner-up in 2002.
Southern New Hampshire University, currently ranked No. 1 in the latest NSCAA Division II national poll, has won 21 straight games since losing their season opener at home, 1-0, to Post University. The team has posted 13 shutouts wins. The Penmen have allowed one goal over their last eight games and have outscored their opponents 58-9 this season in 22 games.
Today, none of the stats or history mean anything to Hubbard. To him, it's all about staying grounded, staying focused in hopes of closing out the season as national champions.
"You get to this point where you don't want to be so excited that it affects your preparation," he said. "We just want to compete at our highest level. We want to make sure we're playing at our very best and giving ourselves every chance to compete on that national stage."
The road to the NCAA Division II men's soccer championship for the Penmen started with three wins in the Northeast-10 tournament. SNHU defeated St. Rose (5-0) in the quarterfinals, Adelphi (1-0) in the semifinals and Merrimack (1-0) in the finals. They followed up with a 3-0 blanking of Wilmington (Del.) University in the second round of the NCAA Division II men's soccer championship at Larkin Field in Manchester.
Former Manchester Memorial standout Christian Rodriguez, now a senior midfielder who scored twice against Wilmington, said the team has maintained its focus all year.
"It's really a process," he said. "In the off-season leading to the preseason we're all working hard and getting to know each other. Then the season starts and the coaches are working as hard as we are. The coaches are doing their homework on teams we're playing. In practice, they're explaining how our next opponent can beat us and how we have to beat them. Then we go out and execute the game plan. It's a process and we're entering this final week the same way we started the season."
Yannick Kabala, a graduate of Manchester Central, told a story earlier this week about a picture hanging in the team's locker room showing the Penmen sad and depressed following their season-ending NCAA quarterfinal loss to Mercyhurst University last year at Larkin Field.
The team avenged that loss two weeks ago in Erie, Pa., when, after beating LIU Post 3-1 to claim the East Region title, defeated the Lakers on their home field with a 5-4 penalty kick shootout win.
SNHU goalie Dom DiMaggio made the only save during the round of penalty kicks. Pierre Omanga (four post-season goals) Mohamed Toufik, Jonathan Lupinelli, Yannick Kabala and Christian Rodriguez (three post-season goal) each scored, punching SNHU's ticket to Georgia. Brian Francolini also has three post-season goals for SNHU.
With 58 goals scored and 13 shutout wins the Penmen have shown they can defend and attack on offense.
"It's been a good mix of offense and defense," said Kabala. "When we get it going on both ends of the field, we're tough to beat."