On August 26, the Duquesne Men’s Soccer Team traveled to face Pitt and made the short drive back humbled by a 7-0 loss, where really nothing had to be said.
The loss proved to be motivating as the coaching staff could not recall put a number on the countless hours spent in the office trying to seek out answers. For their part, the players were in the office grinding as well, becoming visual learners and grinding out results against Robert Morris and Saint Francis.
That Pitt loss was where the belief structure could have been questioned, but never did it waver, proving to be a turning point in the season.
Fast forward 2.5 months later, and this same Duquesne side is onto the Atlantic 10 Championship finals for the first time since 2002, as a six seed, besting second-seeded Rhode Island by a 2-1 score Friday night at Saint Louis University’s Hermann Stadium, winning a semifinal contest.
“We’re excited, it’s a great feeling and obviously well deserved,” Duquesne coach Chase Brooks said. “We’re a hard-working group and these guys have busted their butts all season long.”
Duquesne saw Nate Dragisich (10′) and Zach Mowka (59′) score goals to help its cause, with Ryan Goodhew assisting on both scores.
Dragisich first took a pass from Goodhew and fired a shot to the top-left corner beating Rhody goalkeeper Stefan Schimidt.
Goodhew’s set piece in the 59th minute found senior captain Ryan Landry, who headed the ball to Mowka. The Ram defense forgot about Mowka, the last player on the line and he had a clear shot to the goal, which he executed with a strong kick into the back of the net.
“It’s such a wonderful group of guys that are such hard workers,” said Brooks. “There’s a love for the game and learning for trying to grow to be the best versions of themselves. You saw that today, the learning from the Dayton game to today. None of us are perfect but can you learn from those mistakes and move forward. It is exciting to see that growth from game one to now.”
When the game expired, Dragisich expressed a level of relief as Duquesne had indeed held onto the two-goal lead it was unable to hold onto a couple of weeks prior at Dayton.
Still, he was more reflective of his collegiate journey, and even though there is still plenty left, where this Duquesne program is headed, in addition to what it has the potential to do, had him grinning from ear-to-ear.
“After the game today I was thinking back to when I came in as a freshman and where the program was at in that time,” he said. “It’s crazy what the strides that we’ve taken as a program just in these past 2-3 years. It’s just so much fun having this group of guys together and competing every day, having that one more game mentality.”
Preseason polls often are just that, a prediction from coaches based upon the previous season’s results, and it was not kind to Duquesne. Tied for 10th. That was the label the Dukes were given and now it is one of the final two teams standing.
“At Duquesne, and I think it happens in a lot of sports, we are overlooked,” Brooks said. “We have something to prove and you can see it with our guys and the way they play. That’s what it takes, you need that grind and have to be able to overcome adversity. That’s what you’ve seen from us throughout the season and I’m looking forward to showcasing it at least one more time.”
All season long, coaches and players have said one word. Belief. Duquesne has consistency stated it never stopped believing in itself, the process and that in the end everything would work out.
The preseason poll was brought up through the opening game of the regular season, but after that, it was on the team to trust in the process and deliver results, which it has.
Dragisich stated the label was “disrespectful”, as the team felt it knew it was better than being tied for 10th place among 14 teams.
“Going into games where no one expects you to get anything from it, makes you play that much more without added pressure placed on better-seeded teams with better history,” said Dragisich. “It helps playing with that chip on your shoulder that you can rewrite history against teams that are known to win games.”
While Duquesne was limited to one road win in the regular season, its final contest against Dayton in which three goals were scored validated the Dukes belief, something Landry reminded Brooks in the locker room Friday.
“Knowing when we went to Dayton and put three goals on them on the road, I think gave us a lot of confidence knowing that going into these next few games that we could score no matter where we were,” said Brooks. “There was potentially a bit of momentum from that, even with the loss, knowing that we liked our matchups and these things came together to create this moment where we are.”
Now Duquesne advanced to the Atlantic 10 Championship Finals where it will play top-seeded and tournament host Saint Louis at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Brooks understands the situation, that once again his team will be viewed as the underdogs, but also is aware that all of the pressure is on Saint Louis, a team ranked eighth in the latest United Soccer Coaches Top 25 poll.
He is stressing for his side to go out and have fun, as it did during Friday’s “winter wonderland”. He believes that if Duquesne can work hard, then good things can happen.
“We’ve talked all season long about Duquesne not having achieved much at the A-10 level, much less beyond that,” Brooks said. “If you want to do something that’s never been done before, you have to do things that have never been done before. That’s been one of our focuses this year.”
Photo credit: Bill Barrett/Atlantic 10