In recent memory, the Drexel men’s soccer team had been among the bottom-feeders of the Colonial Athletic Association. Since winning a share of the CAA regular-season title in 2007, the Dragons finished eighth twice and last twice in the past four seasons.
Through the struggles and unlucky injuries in the first two seasons under head coach Doug Hess, the Dragons fought through adversity and stayed focused on working hard to improve every day. Their perseverance has paid off in 2012, as Drexel put itself in position to clinch its first outright CAA regular-season title in program history with a win in the finale against James Madison University Nov. 2.
In a sloppy first half between the Dragons and Dukes, sophomore forward Michele Pataia missed an opportunity to score in the 10th minute when he freed himself in the top of the box and sent a shot wide left. Eight minutes later, senior goalkeeper Tim Washam made a key save on JMU sophomore forward Josh Grant following a blocked shot by the Drexel defense.
Junior midfielder Nathan Page had a number of chances in the match to net his 10th goal of the season for the Dragons and increase his scoring streak to seven games. Page totaled four shots on goal, including a low screamer with seven minutes remaining in the first half, which was saved on a diving attempt by the Dukes’ freshman goalkeeper Kyle Morton.
On that note, the halftime horn sounded and the two teams entered the locker rooms locked in a scoreless tie. With a CAA regular-season title on the line, Hess condensed the magnitude of the situation into a simple phrase.
“When we went in at halftime, I wrote on the board: ‘A little bit more,’” Hess explained. “We just needed to do a little bit more in attack and a little bit more defensively.”
JMU began the second half with desperation to score and began to push into the Drexel end. However, the Dragons were prepared for this type of play and kept their composure.
“We watched enough of JMU to know they want the game to get open,” Hess said. “They’re an excellent team, and they have some special players who break you down off the dribble because they all get isolated. It was a challenge for our guys to stay together and fight through the ugly moments.”
Grant had an opportunity to put the Dukes ahead just 53 seconds after halftime as he flew down the right side of the box and tried to catch Washam off guard with a shot across the goal mouth. But Washam held his position and dove to his right to stone the JMU forward for the second time in the match.
“Tim made a huge save coming out of the half to keep it 0-0,” Hess said. “He’s done that all year long where he’s made a quality save in a quality moment and kept the game alive for us.”
The Washam save slowed the JMU momentum and allowed the Drexel front line to shift the pressure to the other end of the field. In the 62nd minute, Grosh took a corner kick from the left side of the field and lofted it into the box. Junior forward Ken Tribbett leapt into the air but missed solid contact with the ball as it grazed the top of his head and went through to junior Jared Girard.
The midfielder from Morrisville, N.C., shuffled a pass in front of the goal, where junior defender Tal Bublil had body position on the JMU defense. Bublil had his back to the net, but in one motion he jumped as he allowed the ball to pass through his legs and flicked a shot with his right heel past the goalkeeper for a 1-0 lead.
During the fight for the corner kick, Tribbett inadvertently butted heads with a JMU defender, opening up a cut on the back of his head. Tribbett left the match with blood on his uniform, and the training staff managed to stop the bleeding by wrapping his entire head in a bandage with the look of typical rugby headgear.
“First of all, I was glad he felt better,” Bublil said. “Ken proved again his determination and willingness to give for the team.”
While the Dragons’ medical staff performed this unique maneuver, junior forward Mark Donohue replaced Tribbett as a substitute. Following a give-and-go with Page on the left side of the box, Donohue streaked toward the goal and fired a left-footed shot that forced Morton to make a diving save just one minute after entering the match.
Tribbett, aiming to return as a substitute with a clean No. 30 rather than his usual No. 16, looked on from the sidelines as Washam corralled a loose ball in the box in the 67th minute. The goalkeeper then unleashed a 50-yard drop kick that bounced just on the other side of the Dukes’ midfield circle.
Downfield, Donohue was one-on-four against the JMU defense, but one defender whiffed a header on the ball, and it bounced high in the air. Donohue broke free and displayed incredible technique to volley a 30-yard shot that looped over the goalkeeper and into the left side of the net to give Drexel a much-needed insurance goal.
“It was an exceptional assist that you don’t see every day,” Bublil said. “[Tim] deserves it so much after his wonderful performances throughout the season.”
Although it was the Dukes who needed two goals to tie the match, Drexel continued to keep the pressure on. The Dragons held JMU without a shot on goal the rest of the way while recording three of their own, which were all stopped by Morton.
But it did not matter, as the Dragons earned the 2-0 victory to finish with an 8-1-1 CAA record and 25 points to secure the CAA regular-season title. Drexel tied with Old Dominion University for first place in 2007, but this one was special for Hess, who came to the program in 2010 after the retirement of longtime head coach Lew Meehl.
“What does it mean to the program? There’s only been one other of those here in our history in the CAA, and we grinded through one this season,” Hess said. “I hope that’s why they hired me, and it’s really a testament to the group of guys we have here right now.”
As the team captain and defensive leader, it was only appropriate for Bublil to score the game-winning goal. With his strong play at the end of the season, Bublil was named the CAA Player of the Week by the conference and CLEAR Athlete of the Week by Drexel Athletics.
The 24-year-old native of Kfar-Ma’as, Israel, came to Drexel in 2010 and has since cemented his legacy as a shutdown defender and clutch goal scorer. All three of Bublil’s career goals have been of the game-winning variety, including a golden goal in the 109th minute of the Dragons’ match against Virginia Commonwealth University last season.
“This is the moment we have all been waiting for,” Bublil said. “All the struggles and all the pain that we have gone through disappeared like it never existed after the win [against JMU] on Friday.”
With the win, Drexel earned the privilege of hosting the CAA Tournament at Vidas Field, with the semifinals Nov. 9 and final match Nov. 11. With the top two seeds, Drexel and Northeastern University received first-round byes, and the other four teams battled it out Nov. 5 in order to keep their postseason dreams alive.
No. 3 seed JMU defeated the No. 6 seed University of North Carolina Wilmington by a score of 4-3 in overtime, as senior defender Dale Robins-Bailey scored the golden goal in the 95th minute. Meanwhile, the match between No. 4 seed Hofstra University and No. 5 George Mason University was scoreless through double overtime, as the Pride defeated the Patriots 5-3 in penalty kicks.
This means that Northeastern will face JMU in the first game Nov. 9 at 5 p.m., and Drexel will play Hofstra at 7:30 p.m. The two winners will then meet Nov. 11 at 2 p.m. It will be the second CAA tournament hosted by Drexel in a matter of weeks, as the field hockey team won at Buckley Field Nov. 4 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
The Dragons traveled to Hempstead, N.Y., just two weeks ago and defeated the Pride by a score of 2-1 on a late goal by sophomore defender Robert Liberatore, but this time around it will surely be no cakewalk for the home team.
“It will take exactly what it took from us in the regular season and more: determination, focus, willingness to work hard, and staying positive with each other,” Bublil said. “We will have to perform at our highest level and be very strong mentally.”
As icing on the cake, Drexel is finally getting recognition for its stellar play this season. This past week, the Dragons moved up to No. 22 in Soccer America’s national rankings, received votes in the NSCAA Coaches Poll and improved their RPI rank to 31.