Season ends for Bucs in first round of NCAA tournament

Whitworth loses close contest in Texas against Choctaws of Mississippi College

by Korey Hope

The Whitworth men’s soccer team saw their season come to an end last Saturday, as they were defeated by Mississippi College 1-0 in a NCAA Division III first round game in San Antonio, Texas.

After clinching the outright Northwest Conference title for the first time since 2009, the Pirates’ first round game took them to Trinity University to face Mississippi College. The Choctaws had a 12-5-2 record on the year, good enough for their first American Southwest Conference title and NCAA Tournament experience in school history. The Pirates, on the other hand, were making their seventh NCAA Tournament appearance.

“It was a really exciting atmosphere,” Whitworth’s senior goalkeeper Kyle Novak said. “It’s always great to be back at the tournament.”

The first half was marked with slow play and a limited number of opportunities for either side. Only five of the 18 shots in the game occurred in the first half, including only one on target by Choctaw senior midfielder Hugo Flores in the first five minutes of the game. The teams went into the half at a stalemate.

Going into the half without allowing a goal was nothing new for the Pirates, having only given up two first half goals all year. Mississippi College has also done well defensively in the first half of games, allowing only six first-half goals on the season; however, this season the Choctaws gave up 19 second-half goals, and the Pirates looked to exploit Mississippi College’s typically weak second half defense. Whitworth threw seven shots at the Choctaw junior goalkeeper Robert Jackson, forcing him to make all four of his saves in the second half.

Mississippi College brought pressure of their own in the second half, winning a throw-in deep in Pirate territory in the 53rd minute of play. Junior forward Wesley Noble launched the throw into the box, where it was flicked on by junior midfielder Harrison Russell to senior forward Diego Ayala, who headed it past the Bucs’ goalkeeper Kyle Novak for a 1-0 lead. It was the sixth goal the senior had allowed in 18 games this year, which is part of the reason he had the fourth best goals against average  in the nation upon entering the match.

“He had a very good season,” head coach Sean Bushey said. “Whatever he does he wants to do it well, and he was certainly an important part of this year’s success.”

With their season on the line, the Pirates began to press even harder on the offensive side of the pitch, firing seven of their nine total shots. Sophomore forward Robby Ubben, who led the team with seven goals this year, also led the team in shots throughout the game, owning one-third of Whitworth’s shots in the game.

The Pirates’ best opportunity, perhaps, came through Ubben, who received a pass in-stride between two Mississippi College defenders. Jackson, the Choctaw goalkeeper, saw that Ubben was through and left his goal line to greet Ubben about 12 yards out from the goal. The two players slid and collided on the ground, as the ball rolled out of play off the endline.

“I took a big touch and it went farther than I would have hoped, so I slid to try and get a touch on it,” Ubben said. “It was unfortunate because it was one of my better chances.”

Jackson took the worst of of collision, and remained on the ground for about a minute before returning to his goal with the help of Choctaw trainers.

Although the Pirates had the second half edge in shots, Mississippi College had one less shot than Whitworth, with their best chance to seal the deal coming in the final three minutes. Russell, who assisted the Choctaw goal, struck a shot from inside the box on a counter-attack, requiring Novak to come up with a save.

“I was focused on doing my job,” Novak said. “And the whole team continued to work hard every minute of the game.”

Despite the late acrobatic save to keep the Pirates in the game, time ran out on Whitworth, bringing their season to sudden halt in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“The work and the energy and focus throughout the season was excellent,” Bushey said. “They definitely deserved to go to the tournament.”

The Bucs’ senior class had five players, including Novak. However, he is the only senior on the starting squad, meaning the Pirates will return nearly all of this year’s starters next season. Junior goalkeeper Nate Bell will graduate this year academically, but he still has one year of eligibility left and is undecided about whether he will return next season.

“That is still to be determined,” Bushey said. “He has academic plans and goals and they will always come first.”

Looking ahead to next year, Bushey says he always sees positive things coming in the future.

“Our outlook is always the same,” Bushey said. “We look forward to competing next season, but there is still a lot of hard work to be done and a lot of fun playing to be had.”

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