It wouldn’t be fall in the Northeast-10 without Merrimack and Southern New Hampshire meeting in the NE-10 soccer playoffs. The matchup will again take center stage on Friday, when the Warriors travel to SNHU looking to avenge last season’s 1-0 loss in the NE-10 title game.
But it goes beyond just that one game.
In both 2012 and 2013, the Warriors had advanced to the Northeast-10 championship game. And in both seasons, they were edged by Southern New Hampshire. Both games were decided by only one goal.
Southern New Hampshire has not only ended Merrimack’s NE-10 title hopes the past two seasons, the Penmen also eliminated Merrimack from the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Last fall, after beating Merrimack in the NE-10 title game – the Warriors were one of the last teams left out of the NCAA field – SNHU went on to win the national championship.
Earlier this season at Martone-Mejail Field, the Warriors and Penmen played to a 2-2 draw after SNHU erased a two-goal lead the Warriors took in the first half.
Merrimack enters this contest 13-3-2, while SNHU comes in 15-1-1, losing only to Le Moyne (in double-overtime).
The tie with Merrimack was one of only two games the Penmen have not won this season.
“Every year it comes down to us and them,” said Merrimack senior captain Michael Buraczynski. “They’re a great team, and we know that. I think there is really a strong mutual respect, which makes the rivalry even that much better. We play hard against each other, we fight to the final whistle, and they have all been really close games.”
The winner of Friday’s semifinal will advance to the conference championship game on Sunday.
The Warriors aren’t just playing for their NE-10 title hopes, but their NCAA tournament fate is also at stake. A loss likely eliminates Merrimack from a tournament berth, while a win gets them closer to an automatic bid, and a potential top win in the regional rankings if the Warriors needed an at-large berth.
“Of course it’s in the back of our minds a little bit, especially the seniors,” Buraczynski said. “For us, this could be it. You either play well and win or it’s your last game. It’s the playoffs, so we don’t need any extra motivation, and you try to not think about it, but I’d be lying, of course the thought crosses your mind. We know we’re good enough to be there, and we just have to go prove it.”
The Warriors beefed up their non-conference schedule this season after last season’s NCAA snub. In part, the Warriors were left on the outside because of what was perceived as a weaker non-conference schedule.
Despite likely needing a win to keep their season alive, the Warriors are better prepared for playoff soccer after the grind of their regular season.
“The Northeast-10 is always top competition,” Buraczynski said. “If you can win in our league, I think you can win anywhere. And we did play some tougher teams earlier in the season and I think that helped us get ready. Everything we have gone through this season has gotten us prepared for this game.”
Merrimack is currently ranked third in the Division II East Rankings, while SNHU occupies the top spot.
In the NE-10 quarterfinals on Tuesday, the Warriors trailed Stonehill, 1-0, at halftime before storming back with two second-half goals to secure a 2-1 win.
“Everyone was calm (at halftime),” Buraczynski said. “A couple of us spoke up but we didn’t have to. We have a very confident team and we knew if we came out and played the way we needed to play in the second half, we could get it done. We needed to make some adjustments but we did and and played really well in the second half.”
Added head coach Tony Martone: “This was a very difficult Stonehill team to play against, and I’m extremely proud with how the guys competed to come away with the win. We made some adjustments in the second half that led to some goals, and the guys were able to play our style in a difficult environment to get the win.”
That momentum will need to carry over into Friday.
“Chances like this don’t always come around,” Buraczynski said. “We know that. We also know how good SNHU is, and how much we respect them. They won a national title last year, not just the NE-10 title, so it’s going to be a huge challenge for us but we’re up for it.”
Things will get underway at 7 p.m.
Mike McMahon covers Merrimack College for The Eagle Tribune and is the founder and managing editor of The Mack Report. Mike is also on staff as a senior writer at College Hockey News. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcMahonCHN