Ask coach Jesse Cormier when he first believed the University of Vermont men’s soccer team had the right stuff to reach the NCAA Division I tournament, and he reaches back to the end of the 2014 campaign.
In 2014 the Catamounts fell to Maryland-Baltimore County, 3-1, in the semifinals of the America East playoffs to finish 8-9-2. But UVM held its ground against a Retriever team that produced four consecutive NCAA shutout victories before falling in the tournament semifinals.
“We played a really good game against UMBC,” Cormier said. “I saw some movement from this group in a direction where we could be a force this season. The biggest challenge I had with this team was convincing them they were good enough to make this happen.”
Consider that challenge met. When Vermont edged Binghamton, 1-0, in the AE title game on Sunday, it earned its ninth NCAA bid and first since 2007. The Catamounts (11-6-3) will face Boston College (9-7-1) in Newton, Mass., in an opening round game Thursday. A victory there would lead to a showdown with 14th-ranked South Florida in the second round.
“UMBC made it to the Final Four last year. I’m not saying we’re that team, but they showed the level of soccer that’s played in America East. We’ll try to catch fire and see what we can do.”
It has been a gratifying season for Cormier, a standout player for Vermont in the early 1990s and now in his 12th season as head coach. UVM made missteps and sputtered, particularly early when it began the season 0-3-1.
“The great thing about this group was it understood there was opportunity to take lessons from both the ups and downs,” Cormier said. “They saw losses as ways to learn what we needed to do better.”
If there was a tipping point to the season, it came in a 2-1 loss at home to Binghamton in early October.
“That was a bit of a wake up call,” Cormier said. “We’d had a good deal of success in the past against Binghamton but they manhandled us in virtually every aspect of the game. But coming out of that, our guys responded beautifully.”
That response was delayed by a game – a crushing 2-1 loss at Dartmouth in which the Big Green scored twice in the final two minutes. Since then, UVM has gone 6-1-2, with a 3-0 victory over UMBC that snapped its’ 27-game conference winning streak and another win over the Retrievers in the league playoff semifinals.
“We started off pretty rough, but we knew it was just a matter of everybody getting their jobs done,” said forward Brian Wright, the team’s premier scorer and MVP of the conference tournament. “You want to be playing your best soccer at the end of the season and that’s what we’re doing.”
Wright had the lone goal in the tournament-clinching win against Binghamton, his 10th of the season and the 27th of his career. He moved past Cormier into a tie for fifth on the Catamounts’ career goal scoring list and is also tied for fifth in career points with 63. Cormier earned his 100th career victory in the win over the Bearcats.
“I think he’s the best striker, not just in the league but I think he’s one of the best in the country,” Cormier said of the 6-0, 180-pound junior from Ajax, Ontario. “He’s just complete. He’s so dynamic, so skillful. When he gets his opportunities…he buries them.”
Wright and junior Bernard Yeboah (five goals) give Vermont a pair of forwards with separation speed on the front line. Jackson Dayton anchors the midfield while senior co-captain Jack Shea and graduate student Loftur Eriksson bring experience to the back line.
In net, Eastern Connecticut transfer Greg Walton has quietly developed into a premier goaltender. His two glittering saves in the opening minutes against Binghamton gave the Cats time to settle down and find their stride. For the season Walton has a 1.23 goals-against average with four shutouts.
“The bigger the game, the more relaxed Greg looks and I think that really helps our team,” Cormier said. “Knowing he’s relaxed, we’re going to relax and we’re going to focus on doing our different jobs and getting it done.”
Boston College was once a regular face on UVM’s schedule, but not since the Eagles migrated first to the Big East Conference and now the Atlantic Coast. Vermont is 6-3-3 overall against BC, but the last match came in 1988.
Playing in the deepest soccer conference in the country (the ACC sent a tournament-high seven teams to the tournament), Boston College was 5-3-0 against NCAA teams but comes into the Vermont match having lost three of its last four.
UVM players and coaches gathered on campus to watch Monday’s selection show. They had to wait until the second half of the 48-team bracket was announced before learning the Eagles would be their opponent.
“I don’t know a ton about BC but I do know we’re not going into this just happy to be here,” Cormier said. “The way I’m going to frame it to the players is there are now 48 teams that have a chance to win the national championship and we’re one of them.”
“The beautiful thing about this team is we have so many variables. We can do different things at different times.”