Raging Bulls extend season by suffocating Hartwick
Men’s soccer team one win from MAC Tournament berth
Senior forward Maksym Kowal (9) and the Bulls defeated Hartwick and are now one win from the MAC Tournament. Spectrum File Photo
It all comes down to Friday. One win and the Bulls are in the Mid-American Conference Tournament. A loss and their season is over.
On Halloween evening, the Bulls (5-10-1, 3-2-1 MAC) continued their improbable run toward a playoff berth with another victory, continuing to rewrite their season and earning their first road victory. Conference nemesis Hartwick (4-10-2, 1-5 MAC) was their latest victim. The Bulls defeated the Hawks by a final score of 1-0 for the team's third consecutive shutout win. The victory sets up a showdown with Northern Illinois (5-9-3, 3-2-1 MAC) for the final tournament spot.
Junior defender Joey Merlow scored the game's only goal in the 29th minute. Merlow received a well-placed pass from senior forward Patrick Ryan and ripped a shot just inside the right post of the goal. Hawks goalkeeper Mateo Munarriz was in poor position on the play and Merlow took full advantage.
"[Ryan] found me on the outside and I drove to the goal," Merlow said. "I beat the defender and I noticed the goalie was out of position. I took a chance. I knew we needed a goal and I looked at the near post and I sunk it in."
It was Merlow's second consecutive game with a goal and his first game-winning goal of the season. He credits his recent success to a change in the offensive game plan, which allows him more opportunities to be aggressive.
"We have been changing formations all year," Merlow said. "It is set up that I am getting the ball more often on the outside and in scoring positions. We're looking for me to score now. I have had a couple of opportunities and I have been able to put them away, so I'm thankful for that."
The Bulls turned around their season on Oct. 19 when they hosted conference rival Florida Atlantic University (2-11-1, 0-5 MAC). Head coach David Hesch introduced a new defensive strategy: counterattacking the opposition whenever they possess the ball in the Bulls' territory. The results have been remarkable.
During its three-game winning streak, Buffalo has boosted its shooting percentage to 21, scoring five goals off 24 shots - a significant improvement from its previous average of 6 percent shooting.
"We're definitely playing better defense and we are not allowing anyone a quality shot on goal, which helps a lot," Hesch said. "We are defending all over the field and, when we have the ball, we're looking to possess and attack. We're getting shots on goal. We had one goal today but we should have had two or three."
The Bulls' defense carried them throughout the game. Hartwick attempted 12 corner kicks and had 17 shot attempts. Despite their relentless offensive barrage, the Hawks were not able to crack Buffalo's stout defense. The Bulls' back-line defenders kept the Hawks from getting too close. Only three of Hartwick's 17 shots were on goal.
Senior goalkeeper Jonathan Viscosi had three saves en route to his third consecutive shutout. Viscosi moved into 10th all time on the Bulls' career saves list with 151. Viscosi has not allowed a goal in 264 game minutes.
"It was a really good win for us," Viscosi said. "Coach asked us before the game if we all knew the significance of the game: that we had to win, no matter what. We would have to have that mentality throughout. We got an early goal and, for the rest of the game, we defended hard and looked to create more chances, and we got the result."
The team now looks to Friday. The Huskies have won two of their last three games and have one of the best goalkeepers in the nation in Jordan Godsey, who has five shutouts on the season and 33 in his career - the 11th-most in NCAA history.
The Bulls have been impressive in their winning streak and believe they can get their fourth consecutive win when they take on the Huskies.
"Honestly, I am so excited our team has come back from a losing season to winning one more and being in the playoffs." said Merlow, whose team went 8-8-2 and lost 1-0 to Northern Illinois in the MAC semifinals last year. "This Friday, I'm sure everyone is going to be there. We are looking for a win. We're looking to come together again and make the playoffs."
Hesch is confident in his team's ability to play together and perform under pressure. The Bulls have responded to his challenge to play better in the latter part of the season, and he is hoping there will be plenty of loud, encouraging fans at the next game.
"I think that we are going to be successful," Hesch said. "We just need the support of the fans to help these guys be successful. It is a big game. We have to win if we want to make the playoffs."
The Bulls can only make the tournament by defeating the Huskies. Buffalo is 8-10-1 all time versus the Huskies and 4-4 at home this season, including a perfect 2-0 when hosting conference opponents.
The biggest game of the season will start at 7 p.m. at UB Stadium.
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