From pretender to contender

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Last year the men’s soccer team was a one-and-done playoff pretender. This year, they are in the Final Four for the first time in Ryerson history and poised to make noise. How did so much change in just one year? Jay Saran and Rob Moysey report

What a difference one season can make.

At the end of last season, Rams forward Vince D’Elia was overcome with grief when he missed the Rams’ final penalty shot in their first-round match up against the Laurentian Voyageurs.

But on Wednesday night, under the bright lights of BMO Field, D’Elia didn’t crack under the pressure. He scored the only goal of the game to push his team past the Trent Excalibur and keep their post-season alive.

“I kept telling myself this game needs a hero, and a few minutes after that I scored,” D’Elia said. “To have everyone come and jump on you and to hear the fans chant after [scoring] is a feeling you can’t describe.”

It was only the second playoff win in Ryerson men’s soccer history, but the feeling this year is that anything can happen. The Rams have played to a historic 7-2-5 record and entered the playoffs on a four-game winning streak. They’ve also set single-season records for wins, losses, clean-sheets, goals for and goals against.

It might be a little premature, but it’s hard not to draw comparisons to head coach Ivan Joseph’s Graceland University team that won the NAIA National Championship back in 2006.

“This team is man-for-man better technically than my Graceland team, but they were lacking the heart and the passion of that team,” said Joseph.

Part of the team’s seemingly overnight transformation stems from a rigorous offseason conditioning regime that Joseph started. In past years, the team wouldn’t start working out until weeks before the season. This year, they spent the past eight months working on technical development and building chemistry.

“[Last year] we had enough talent, we were just undisciplined and unprepared.”

The extra preparation has paid off. Thus far in the playoffs, they edged both the Trent Excalibur 1-0 and the Carleton Ravens 3-2 in tight one-goal affairs, putting them in the Final Four semi-finals for the first time in their history.

Against Trent, the Rams controlled the play throughout like they have so often this season. The first half was filled with chances for Ryerson, but it wasn’t until the 76th minute that D’Elia was able to slip the ball past Trent goalkeeper Josip Bosnjak, who was brilliant with nine saves on the night.

“Vince has really stepped up. By looking at his game last year and this year, it’s a totally night-and-day difference,” said Joseph.

D’Elia’s growth is only a microcosm of how the team has grown over the season. They have showed maturity in dealing with the pressure of holding onto leads in the playoffs, something they struggled mightily with during the regular season. With Trent pressing late, Ryerson didn’t even allow a shot on goal.

They have also learned to battle back when facing adversity. Against Carleton on Saturday, the team rallied behind three unanswered goals — two by player-coach Kevin Souter and another by third-year midfielder Alex Braletic — to clinch the historic win.

“Kevin’s a guy who spent the whole season developing the team and now in the playoffs he’s leading them,” Joseph said.

If the Rams truly are made of the same mettle as that Graceland team, they may have to experience the pain of setbacks before ultimate success. In the 2005 post-season, Graceland lost a heartbreaking double-overtime decision before rallying next season and winning it all as clear underdogs.

“After we lost that game, I knew we could win the championship,” said Joseph. “Those mistakes build character and expose weaknesses.”

On Saturday, the Rams will play the York Lions, arguably the best team in Ontario and legitimate national championship contenders. Like Graceland, they are underdogs too.

“If we have our best game, we have a chance to win. Anything can happen in one game,” said Joseph.

“Luck is for the well-prepared.”

Photo: Marta Iwanek

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