The season began for the Northern Kentucky University men’s soccer team the way most do nowadays, with a high ranking and high hopes. Coming off of a disappointing ending to last season that included a third straight conference championship loss and an early exit from the NCAA Tournament, the Norse expected a little different ending to this season.
“We are in, by far, the strongest conference in Division II soccer,” senior forward and team captain Steven Beattie told me before the season began. “That’s the kind of standard you set when you are constantly putting teams in the Final Four or the championship game. It’s within reason to go all the way.”
And the Norse would see that their expectations would not be left empty.
The Norse woke up on Saturday, Dec. 4 with one goal in mind: return to NKU with a national championship trophy. There was only one problem. Rollins University, who was ranked fifth in the country and had a record of 15-3-3, was going to do everything they could to make sure that did not happen. The stage was set, and after an hour delay due to snow, both teams where ready to decide the championship on the field. While the game was not at home, it is tough to say that the Norse did not have a home field advantage. With the game taking place only an hour-and-half drive away from campus, many students made it down to the game to ensure that NKU would have a strong supporting cast in the crowd. With Rollins University being located in Florida, it is safe to say that the cold and snow didn’t hurt matters either.
The Norse wanted to get off to a good start in the championship game, but had no idea how quick of a start they would actually get off to. In the ninth minute, the Norse were set up with their first free kick, and sophomore defender Paul Andrews, who had been reliable taking free kicks for the Norse all season, sent a ball into the box. Senior forward Jack Little was waiting for the ball, and flicked a header into the back of the net past Rollins keeper Keneil Baker, putting the Norse up 1-0. Rollins and NKU both kept up the physical play, both giving themselves chances to score. In the 33rd minute, NKU midfielder Michael Bartlett was able to rip a shot on goal, but it was turned away by Baker. Baker, however, was unable to hang onto the ball, and it rolled in front of the goal and up for grabs. Midfielder Jordan Grant was able to get to a solid shot on the ball, scoring the second goal of the game for the Norse, putting them ahead 2-0. NKU would take the 2-0 lead into the half.
“I had confidence in my teammates,” Beattie said. “If I was able to give them space, they will step up. What a way for those guys to step up. (Little) was amazing in the Final Four and National Championship.
While the Norse were trying to nurse their 2-0, Rollins was preparing to make a quick second half charge, and a quick charge they made. Before three minutes had gone by in the second half, Rollins was able to cut NKU’s lead in half by netting a quick second half goal. The Tars were able to quickly drive the ball down the field, and force a corner. Defender Kevin Boone was able to cross a ball into the center of the box, and midfielder Adam New as able to knock home a header, making it 2-1. Rollins did not quit there, and quickly returned to the offensive, applying more pressure to the Norse. In the 52nd minute, Rollins had another corner, and Boone sent another ball into the box. After a couple shots, the ball fell loose in font of the goal, and defender Jack Clifford was able to knock home the equalizer, leveling the match at 2-2, and completely taking away NKU’s advantage.
“I kept telling (the team) to stay focused, the game wasn’t over until the final whistle,” Andrews said. “We talked about how many times this season we had given up two stupid goals and still found a way to win the game. We weren’t giving up this game.”
With the score back even, play really began to pick up between the squads. With fouls for both teams quickly mounting, both sides received two yellow cards. In the 56th minute, as forward Bradley Welch ripped a shot on net, Lavric was able to keep the shot out of the back of the net, but was unable to secure the rebound, and the ball rolled loose in front of the net. Rollins was able to get to the ball first, and put another shot on net, but Lavric made a diving one-handed save, keeping the match level at 2-2, and sending the momentum back into NKU’s corner.
“He pulled off a top-class to keep us in the game,” Andrews said. “(The defense) has been so confident playing in front of him, we know if the ball goes over our head, he will make a play. He was unbelievable this weekend.”
NKU took the momentum and ran, turning to the offensive. In the 65th minute, defender Anthony Meyer was able to pick up a loose ball and drive down the field. Meyer sent a cross into the box, towards the NKU attackers, and freshman Michael Holder was able to get his head on the ball and put the shot in the goal. The ball hit off of Baker’s hands, but found its way into the back of the net, putting the Norse 3-2 and eventually proving to be the game’s winner.
“It came down to goalkeeping, and Lavric’s save won the game,” Beattie said. “It gave us the momentum and energy, and we were able to get back on the offensive and score another goal.”
As the game rolled on, Rollins hiked up the pressure, knowing they had to get a goal or the match was over. From the 73rd minute to the 80th minute, Rollins was able to create four scoring chances, but Lavric easily turned these chances away helping the Norse hold on to a 3-2 margin. The aggressive play from Rollins backfired in the 84th minute when midfielder Clifford received his second yellow card of the match resulting a red card and an ejection from the match. With little time and now playing a man down, Rollins would not get another chance to level the match, and the Norse took the championship, 3-2, bringing home the first soccer championship in NKU history.
“It’s a dream come true,” Beattie said. “I told myself that if I didn’t win a national championship, my college career wouldn’t be a success. It’s great being the first ever men’s team to bring a national championship back to NKU.”
Story by Nick Jones