Despite being the more dangerous side for the majority of this warm Wednesday afternoon, the SUNY Cortland men’s soccer team was getting a bit anxious.
“It was one of those games where you’re wondering if it was ever going to come,” admitted Red Dragons head coach Steve Axtell of the precious first goal that would most likely decide this SUNY Athletic Conference semifinal playoff tussle with Buffalo State.
That all-important goal would finally arrive some 15 minutes from the end of regulation at the Stadium Complex, as second half substitute Matt Aprile deposited a Ma’Cain Spragling pass into an open net to give the playoff hosts a 1-0 victory.
That secured an 11th consecutive win for the regular season champions, as the Red Dragons also tied the school record for victories in the season while improving to 16-2 overall. That matched the 16-win campaigns at Cortland achieved in 2003 and 2014.
Now top-seed and No. 6 nationally-ranked Cortland will host second-seed and No. 22 nationally-ranked Oneonta in Saturday’s 1 p.m. title game back as this same site.
Oneonta (14-5-1), also known as the Red Dragons, were the last team to beat Cortland — coming up with a 3-0 home field win back on Sept. 23. Oneonta advanced with a lopsided 4-0 win over visiting Fredonia in yesterday’s other semifinal match, Witman Hernandez with a three-goal hat trick.
“No matter who it is, we’re just ready to bring the championship home,” said junior Spragling of the championship, though Cortland was looking forward to getting another crack at Oneonta. “I think they got the best of us the first time, but that really wasn’t us. We weren’t at the full potential of what we could have been.”
And though the Oneonta-Cortland winner earns an automatic berth into the NCAA Division III tournament, both teams are good bets to earn at-large berths into that field in any case.
“You want the final to be what you foresee as the best two teams, and we finished one-two,” said Coach Axtell, looking forward to the Oneonta rematch. “What a better way to have a final. If you want to win it, you want to beat the next best team.”
CORTLAND LOOKED THE better team against fourth-seed Buffalo State (11-7-1), but had to pull out a victory similar to a 1-0 home field triumph on Oct. 8 decided on a late goal by team scoring leader Nick Tata.
Though nearly doubling up the Bengals in shots, finishing with a 15-8 edge, getting anything past opposing goalie William Banahene was a tough task.
Then came the game-winner, started when senior forward Tyler Kirschner provided a crossing pass after some scrappy work on the right side. Though Spragling had a chance to turn that delivery into a shot on goal, he provided an extra pass that gave sophomore midfielder Aprile a much easier opportunity.
Kirschner and Spragling both earned assists on the play.
“I got the ball through, fought another guy, and he let me go. He wanted to foul me but the ref didn’t call it,” said Spragling. “I could have shot it, but I saw a player wide open and I knew he’d put it in the back of the net. Oh, I had faith (in myself) but assists… I love to get an assist before a goal, definitely.”
Aprile had come off the bench in the second half, and the hard-working Kirschner was also fresh after having been given a breather since late in the first half before coming back into the game before the game-winner arrived.
“I just wanted to make an impact on the game the best I could. It was a big playoff game. I just stepped up and I was able to put it in,” said Aprile of his role and goal. “We were getting our chances the whole game, we were dominating the whole time, and we finally got one in.”
Cortland had no trouble protecting that lead, as the defense led by center-backs Nevin Nambiar and Matt Hellerman pretty much stifled Bengals’ striker Brandon Galanti and center-midfielder Bass Sarr — Sarr with a team high 12 goals coming into the game. Outside defenders Garrett Sweeney and Drew DeJohn also had big days in Cortland’s school-record 13th shutout of the season.
Goalie Connor Young needed just two saves to earn his ninth shutout in 11 starts for Cortland.
“THEY DID A NICE job defending, too,” said Coach Axtell of Buffalo State’s shutout bid, especially praising Bengals senior keeper Banahene. “We had it in their half, but we didn’t have a ton of clean looks on goal. We had the ball a lot more, but they sat in spaces and make it tough.”
The best first half scoring chances for Cortland were an early Tata blast that went just wide of the far post and a pair of Spragling shots denied by Benahene saves — one a sparkling sprawling gem.
The Red Dragons had an 8-3 shot advantage after intermission, and nearly scored off a Miguel Tunas corner kick in the 60th minute. A Bengals defender had to clear a header by freshman Nambiar off the goal-line to keep things scoreless.
Tata nearly connected on two occasions moments before the game-winner arrived, sending another shot wide right before a dipping shot drilled from some 25 yards out had to be tipped over the crossbar by Benahene.
Some eight minutes later, the game-winner arrived.
“It would come eventually. You can’t let down on yourself because that would throw your game off,” said Spragling, feeling it was just a matter of time before Aprile’s decisive finish.
“Our best trait? Just patience,” said Coach Axtell when asked what he thought his team did best in victory. “That goal came from not rushing it, finding some easier passes inside the box, and they were rewarded for it.
“I don’t think we had a bad performance, which was great, from top to bottom. We played well,” he added.