NORTH ANDOVER — Don’t let the numbers fool you.
Merrimack College enters the 2016 Northeast-10 playoffs today as the fifth seed, barely above .500 overall (8-7) and 8-4 in league play.
As the fifth seed out of six teams, the Warriors are on the road, traveling to New York to take on an Adelphi team that is ranked nationally.
However, the Warriors also enter the playoffs as perhaps not only the hottest team in the league, but also the region.
The Warriors have won four straight games, including three against ranked opponents. One of those wins came on the road, at Adelphi, just more than one week ago.
“We possessed the ball well against Adelphi last time,” said Merrimack senior captain Sarah Sparks. “They scored early but we possessed through the whole game.”
Adelphi scored just 35 seconds into that game before the Warriors put up the game’s next three goals.
These last four games have been a stark contrast to how the season began for the Warriors. Merrimack started 0-4 after an appearance in last year’s national championship game. But three of those losses came to ranked opponents and three of them were also by two goals or less. One of those defeats was a 4-2 loss to No. 1 East Stroudsburg, the team that beat Merrimack in the national title game last fall.
“I think the chemistry is there, we’re really starting to connect,” Sparks said. “We’re learning to trust each other more and pass the ball more. We’re moving it better than we did at the beginning of the year. That opens up a lot more offensively and we’re putting it in the back of the net.”
Merrimack is 8-3 since that four-game losing streak to start the season, including those three wins against ranked competition.
Despite the differences in overall record — Adelphi is 13-5 and Merrimack is 8-7 — the Warriors and Panthers are only separated by one game in the league standings. Adelphi finished the NE-10 season 9-3 and the Warriors finished 8-4.
The winner of Tuesday’s quarterfinal will play on Friday in the semifinals at LIU Post. The championship game is on Sunday at the highest remaining seed.
Just last week, the Warriors won two games against top-five competition. Defensively, Merrimack has been stellar down the stretch, including limiting No. 3 ranked Saint Anselm to just one goal and four shots the entire game.
“It’s obviously nice to be on a role,” Sparks said. “We got hot at the end of the season. That’s huge.
“It boosts our confidence. Beating some ranked teams in our last four games is awesome, but we also need to keep level heads. We never know what we’re going to see, so we can use this experience and use it to our advantage, but we can’t be over-confident. We know how hard we need to work and how well we need to play.”
The Warriors will be on the road for the entire tournament, most likely. The only way Merrimack will have a home game is if they somehow match up against the sixth-seeded Assumption Greyhounds in the championship game.
But traveling isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Warriors took a bus to Adelphi last night and with a win on Tuesday, it would require another road trip to LIU Post on Friday.
“Playing at home is always nice,” Sparks said, “but a road trip also gives us some time together. We’re a clost-knit team and spending time together like this is huge, it really brings you closer.
“Being on the road helps us mentally, too. There are no distractions. We’ll get up (today) and just focus on the game. We’ll know our goals and we’ll be focusing on that all day.”
Merrimack and Adelphi get underway at 4 p.m.