The SUNY Athletic Conference champion and No. 6 nationally-ranked Red Dragons will be in the NCAA Division III tournament’s “Sweet 16” for the second time in the past three years when they join a four-school gathering at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.
In a third round game on Friday evening, Coach Steve Axtell’s 19-2 squad will face Pennsylvania’s Franklin and Marshall (14-3-4) at 7:30 p.m. Host Messiah (19-0-3) and Calvin (20-2) out of Michigan will get the doubleheader underway at 5 p.m.
The two winners will meet on Saturday at 5 p.m., with the weekend survivor advancing to the “Final Four” being held Dec. 2-3 in Salem, Virginia.
Cortland has won 14 straight games, and hopes to benefit from its NCAA tournament experience from two seasons ago.
“We play a different style and we have a lot of different players who dictate our style right now,” said Coach Axtell, comparing this squad to that 2014 Cortland crew.
“That being said, the experience of going there and it not being new to all the kids who were there two years ago is a huge benefit,” he added. “The fact they can go in there comfortable and say we’ve been there, it kind of takes some of the pressure off that they had two years ago when it was their first time ever.”
Three seniors are Cortland’s leading scorers, forward Nick Tata (11 goals-4 assists), forward Tyler Kirschner (6-6) and midfielder Daniel Friend (6-4). Goalie Connor Young has started all 14 games in this win streak, and has posted 10 shutouts.
Junior captain Drew DeJohn is the most experienced defender, working with sophomores Garrett Sweeney and Matt Hellerman and rookie Nevin Nambiar.
“One game at a time. That’s been our mantra the whole time,” said Axtell, as Cortland focuses on facing Franklin & Marshall in this tough pod of squads.
NCAA DIVISION III PLAYOFFS
Saturday at Amherst: Amherst (17-1-1) vs. Brandeis (12-5-3), 11 a.m; Oneonta (16-6-1) vs. Rutgers-Newark (20-3), 1:30 p.m.
Saturday at Un. of Chicago: Chicago (17-0-2) vs. Redlands (17-5-1), noon; Benedictue (16-4-2) vs. St. Thomas, Minn. (18-1-3), 2:30 p.m.
Saturday at Tufts: Tufts (11-5-2) vs. Rowan (17-2-1), 11 a.m.; Trinity, Tex. (22-1) vs. Kenyon (19-2), 1:30 p.m.
The four teams competing this weekend were all ranked in the top 16 in the final NSCAA Division III regular-season poll. Messiah is ranked fourth, Cortland sixth, F&M 14th and Calvin 16th.
Cortland advanced to the sectional with wins at home this past weekend, beating Morrisville State 5-1 and Scranton 2-1. The Red Dragons have set a school record with their 19 wins, and their current 14-game winning streak is the longest in a single season in school history.
Cortland’s school-record 15-game win streak spanned the 1959 and 1960 seasons.
Cortland is making its 20th NCAA appearance, including 17 on the Division III level. The Red Dragons are striving for their first national quarterfinal appearance since back-to-back advancements to that round in 1990 and 1991.
Cortland finished second nationally in 1977, third in 1978, tied for third in 1982, and tied for fifth in 1960 (Division I), 1976, 1979, 1981, 1990 and 1991.
Franklin & Marshall defeated Geneva 1-0 and Washington & Lee 2-0 to advance, this the school’s fourth straight NCAA appearance and seventh overall. The Diplomats earned an at-large berth after losing to Haverford 2-1 in the Centennial Conference finals.
No stranger to the NCAAs, F&M lost to Messiah in the 2013 national quarterfinals and lost in the third round each of the last two years.
Messiah, the MAC Commonwealth champion, has won 10 national titles, most recently in 2013. The Falcons lost in the sectional finals in 2014 after beating Cortland 6-0 in the third round. Messiah missed the NCAA tournament last year for the first time since 1996.
Calvin is appearing in its 15th NCAA tournament. The Knights tied for third place last year and were national runner-up in both 2009 and 2011. Calvin earned an NCAA automatic berth after winning its third straight Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament title.
Cortland has never faced either Franklin & Marshall or Calvin, and the Red Dragons have lost all three of their meetings versus Messiah.
Cortland is not the only SUNYAC squad still playing, as regular season runner-up Oneonta is also in the “Sweet 16.”
The Red Dragons have not lost since a 3-0 stumble at Oneonta in a Sept. 23 regular season contest, and avenged that loss with a 1-0 victory in the conference playoff championship game decided by a second half goal by substitute Cam LaVallee off a Kirschner crossing pass.
Oneonta is part of a four-team field traveling to Amherst in Massachusetts for games Saturday and Sunday. In third round play Saturday,Amherst (17-1-1) faces Brandeis (12-5-3) at 11 a.m. before Oneonta (16-6-1) takes on Rutgers-Newark (19-3) at 1:30 p.m.
Oneonta hosted first and second round games this past weekend, nipped St. John Fisher 1-0 and going two overtimes to defeat Eastern 2-1.
Junior defender Kevin Hoff scored both Oneonta goals in that escape past Eastern.