NORTH ANDOVER — The Merrimack men’s soccer program enters the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season on Thursday, when the Warriors travek to Long Island, N.Y. to take part in the NCAA East Regional.
The Warriors will open the tournament against Franklin Pierce; the winner will move on to the second round against top-seeded LIU Post on Saturday.
“The tournament is something special,” said senior captain Oscar Zepeda Cagide. “We look for this every year, we want to be in the tournament but we also want more than that, we want to win the tournament. We have the mentality of going step by step.”
That first step will be the Ravens on Thursday afternoon (1 p.m.). Earlier this season, the Ravens were one of Merrimack’s five losses (14-5), winning a 1-0 game at Franklin Pierce. The Ravens enter the game with a 12-5 record.
Merrimack, the fifth seed in the East region, is in its fourth tournament overall, with every appearance for the Warriors coming since 2012. Merrimack has a 4-3 all-time record and are undefeated (3-0) in opening-round games.
“From being in past tournaments, we can tell that every goal, every play, every run, every slide tackle counts,” Zepeda Cagide said. “It’s really weird to see a 3-0 or 4-0 game when you get to this tournament, it’s always one or two goals in each game. You have to go with that mentality. You have to go 100 percent, 110 percent. We know that the teams in the tournament are really good and really strong and they’re going to have the same mentality as us. We need to match that.”
Franklin Pierce will likely be without one of its top players, Jacob Blixt, who won the Northeast-10 Rookie of the Year and is likely to miss this game due to an injury. If he is out, the Ravens will be without one of their top scorers; Blixt finished tied for the team lead with 28 points.
Merrimack is led by Lars Sund, who has 16 points and Jaime Cortes Torres leads the team with six goals (14 points).
Goalkeeper Tyler Packett has a 0.68 goals-against average and an .803 save percentage for the Warriors. He’ll be opposed by Jadel Poon-Lewis, who had a 1.20 goals-against average and a .757 save percentage for the Ravens.
Zepeda Cagide set a career high this season with four goals and is also perfect (2 for 2) on penalty kicks. A senior tri-captain, it’s been said that he’s playing the best soccer of his Merrimack career the past month. Going back to Oct. 22 against Southern New Hampshire, the Jalisco, Mexico native has three goals in his last five games and leads the team with 18 shots during that span.
“One of the things that makes is strongest is that we are a family,” Zepeda Cagide said. “We really see each other as brothers. We’ve been to this tournament three times, for the seniors, so we are not afraid. We know how this tournament works. Like everyone, we have some injuries, but our chemistry is there.”
Merrimack is looking to rebound after suffering a 2-1 loss to Le Moyne in the Northeast-10 Semifinals last Friday night. Franklin Pierce also fell in the NE-10 semifinals, dropping a 2-0 game against Adelphi.
The Ravens are making their first NCAA appearance since 2012 today.
The Warriors have 10 seniors on the roster, and seven of them are starting.
“Our plan is to go game by game,” Zepeda Cagide said. “We know (Franklin Pierce), they’re in our conference and we play them in the regular season. Analyzing the past few years against them, we know that they are tough and a hard-working team. They do not have a losing mentality. They fight for every goal. I think we can match their intensity, and if we play the way we know we can play, I think we can make it happen.”