STORY AND PHOTOS BY RUSSELL HEITMANN
Pittsburgh, PA — Mother Nature gave Highmark Stadium in Pittsburgh, PA all it could handle this week for the NCAA DII Men’s Soccer National Semifinals and Championship. A snow-packed field welcomed teams for their training sessions on Wednesday, and temperatures didn’t leave the 20s for the semifinals on Thursday.
Both West Chester University (PA) and Barry University (FLA) overcame Thursday’s treacherous chill to advance to Saturday’s national championship; however, biting cold was replaced with spitting rain as the entire match was played in a steady, unrelenting downpour.
The storyline could easily have been the weather or how the conditions affected players, but a flurry of late goals from the Barry University Buccaneers – who trailed 1-0 for much of the game – proved to be the day’s top billing as they came from behind to win their program’s first national championship, 2-1.
Barry played in their first and only other national championship game in 2000, a match they lost against Cal-State Dominguez. Steve McCrath, head coach of the Buccaneers, has headed the Barry program since 1998, and coached in that game 18 years ago.
“I am beside words right now, it’s hard because I just want to explode, but I am grateful,” McCrath said. “We probably exercised some demons that were sitting around for 18 years. We had some alumni that were in that game in the stands and that’s what this program is about — it’s been about family.
“It’s always a family and it was a family victory.”
A competitive and physical attack from the WCU Rams kept Barry uncomfortable throughout much of the match. West Chester racked up 12 first-half fouls, and a total of 21 in the game. As a result, the Buccaneers were only able to muster five first-half shots, with only one landing on goal.
That all changed in the second half for Barry, as they put up 15 shots with four landing on frame. The turning point for the Buccaneers was in the 77th minute when a corner kick found the head of James Kirkham, who directed the ball into the back of the net, tying the score, 1-1.
“I was just happy to win a header,” Kirkham said. “At five foot nothing I don’t really get the opportunity to do that often. The ball got out to Fran [Francisco Greco] on the left-hand side. The ball came in and I directed it towards goal and hoped for the best.”
With the match tied, 1-1, Buccaneer defender, Stephen Kosmala, was fouled just outside the box on the left side, granting him a free-kick. As a defender, Kosmala said the opportunity for a free kick was relatively new for him, but he assessed the conditions and took his shot – aiming for the bottom right-hand corner. He connected, putting Barry up 2-1.
“I’m not usually on those [free kicks] to be honest,” Kosmala said. “With this surface, with this weather, it’s quite slippery, so I just thought hitting the target is the most important thing. I just kind of saw a bend around and just hit the target and it went in and I was happy to see it go in.”
West Chester controlled most the match throughout the first half and into the second period. A goal by Jason Pixley in the 25th minute put the Rams up, and they maintained their lead – and the game – through halftime. Pixely, who was the hero in WCU’s semifinal game –scoring the game-winning goal in the 95th minute — said it was a defensive tendency he noticed Barry played that allowed him to score his second goal of the weekend.
“I noticed that they guarded in a zone on defense for corners and I knew that they would stay in the zone,” Pixely said. “So we would out man them on the line and there would probably be a one on one situation. Brett [Miller] played a great ball.”
The Rams are something of a rarity among the collegiate soccer ranks – as their entire roster is from a roughly two-hour radium of their campus, and all but two Rams call Pennsylvania home. West Chester head coach, Michael Benn, said what the Rams were able to do with their roster makeup is something to be proud of.
“A lot of people didn’t think what this group of people accomplished could be done,” Benn said. “It shows people it can be done you just have to find the people to do that. We take great pride in that and we will continue to recruit the way we recruit. We are in a great area for youth soccer and we try to find the right type of players and right type of people.”
For McCrath and Barry, mid-season injuries and a tough loss could have been the turning point for the Buccaneers, but rallying around their character, and not just physical traits, reset their season for the better.
“I think our postseason started in the middle of the year, to be honest,” McCrath said. “We lost really critical players — guys that could flat out play. We had a devastating loss just prior to that injury. The fact we lost a critical game that played a major factor in today’s result. We never felt at full strength numerically, but mentally and emotionally these guys have been at full strength.”
It’s no surprise then — that through the trials of injuries, tough losses, penalty kick shootouts, and come-from-behind victories – family continues to be at the forefront for both McCrath and the Buccaneers. And although his 2000 runner-up team helped mold McCrath as a coach, this team will always have a special place in the newly minted national champion coach’s heart.
“Those guys are incredibly good family members (the 2000 team) and I love those guys to death because they created who I am as a coach,” McCrath said. I would coach this team until the end of my days as a coach.”