America East: UNH booters have had plenty of success in recent years, but have never won the league tournament championship.
DURHAM — Sophomore center back Josh Bauer and his teammates on the University of New Hampshire men’s soccer team know well the program’s history.
They’ve been talking about one piece of it in particular.
“Something we’ve never done here is win the America East championship,” Bauer said. “We’re always thinking about that. We addressed it at the beginning of the season. One of our team goals was to win the America East Conference and it’s been at the top of our list ever since.”
The Wildcats earned the No. 2 seed for the league tournament and a bye in the quarterfinals and take their next step in their quest for a title tonight.
UNH faces No. 3 UMass Lowell in a tournament semifinal at Wildcat Stadium at 7 p.m. The winner takes on either No. 5 UMBC or No. 1 Stony Brook for the championship Sunday. The title game will be at the home of the higher seed left in the tournament.
The Wildcats finished the regular season 10-3-2 overall and 4-2-1 in America East. They have won at least 10 games in each of coach Marc Hubbard’s four seasons, the first time they have put together such a streak in their history.
UMass Lowell was 9-5-2 and 4-3 this season.
UNH knocked off the River Hawks, 2-0, on Oct. 26 in Durham.
“It’s going to be a really hard game,” said Wildcat coach Marc Hubbard. “It’s hard to play a team twice in such a short period of time. We understand that it will be tight and we’ll have to be playing our best soccer. It will be a very tactical soccer game where we’re trying to outthink each other in our movement and our passing. When that happens, all the little things matter a little bit more in terms of our approach collectively as a group and the choices that we make.”
Bauer and graduate student goalkeeper Lars Huxsohl have led the Wildcats to eight shutouts in their 15 games. The team’s goals-against average of 0.577 is ninth best in the country.
Huxsohl was named Goalkeeper of the Year in America East for his efforts and Bauer was picked as Defender of the Year in the league.
Bauer, 6-foot-1 and a standout at Bedford High School, has built on an impressive freshman season.
“He’s just a very calming presence back there,” Hubbard said. “He can clean stuff up. He can cover a lot of ground athletically. Very strong in the air. He’s improved a great deal with his on-the-ball decisions this year. Our center backs are on the ball a lot the way we play. Their decisions have to be smooth and good under pressure, which he’s improved upon.”
His defensive mates — among them senior Juan Velazquez, juniors Kyle Brewster and Siggi Geirsson and redshirt freshman Jonny Wolf — help make it a solid unit.
“It definitely helps having the guys around me,” Bauer said. “With Lars back there, I feel comfortable playing to him any time. We have midfielders that want the ball and other defenders that want the ball. I think we do a good job of shaping up and making passes available for each other.”
Bauer has also contributed on the offensive end. He scored three goals last season and has three so far this year.
After redshirting his freshman year, Bauer played every minute of every game last year.
Not bad for a guy who wasn’t sure he wanted to play soccer in college.
“I was kind of a late pickup, I feel like, for Hubbs,” Bauer said. “I was on the fence about whether I even wanted to play college soccer, to be honest. I was kind of going back and forth between going to maybe a bigger school down south and not playing soccer at all or coming here to play soccer. Ultimately, I decided I couldn’t really give up the sport because I love playing it. I think it’s been the best decision I’ve made in my life. I have no regrets.”
He’s a biomedical science major and thinks he’d like to go to med school and become a doctor.
Tonight, he and the Wildcats have more immediate concerns and will look to advance to the America East championship game for the first time since 2012.
The team has other goals for this season as well.
Last year, UNH earned an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament and made a deep run. The Wildcats played in the tournament for only the second time and collected their first two wins to move on to the Round of 16.
The 48-team field for the tournament will be announced next Monday and Hubbard feels his team has set itself up well to earn another at-large bid should it not win the America East tournament and earn an automatic spot.
“We want to still control our own destiny and try and ensure a home game in the NCAAs and a bye if we can in the NCAAs,” Hubbard said. “You’ve got to win. We have to win in order to get that. I think we’ve put ourselves in a pretty good position, but you never know.”
Two wins and grabbing UNH’s first America East title would guarantee a spot in the national tournament. One win and a spot in the final game would be the next best thing and likely lock up a berth.
UNH is undefeated in Wildcat Stadium with an 18-0-3 record over the last two seasons.