Hamilton, ON- The McMaster Marauders men’s soccer team ended their OUA quarterfinals game in jubilation. The players and coaches were celebrating with each other, their friends and family and the fans.
They had just beaten the defending OUA champion Guelph Gryphons 2-1 on a sunny late October day at Ron Joyce Stadium. It was the same Guelph team they tied and lost to at home earlier in the season.
“We also went in with the mindset of almost pay back in a sense,” defender Dante Morrissette said. “We heard them cheer afterwards and we just knew that today was the day we sent them home.”
The team entered their playoff game with excitement. Marauders head coach Chris Markou said the players had the game marked on their calendars.
“A calm feeling in the change room prior to the game and through training this week,” he added. “So that made me feel good as a coach. On that day, they have that confidence.”
They also had a game plan. They studied the tape from their previous games against Guelph. Markou noted how they knew Guelph played well from the flanks. McMaster’s plan was to provide support for their fullbacks.
They did so. McMaster also created opportunities from the side as well. Forward Miles Green broke in for a chance early on but hit the shot just wide of the net. Morrissette said they noticed the Gryphons’ left back up the field so they played it through the right hand side.
It paid off close to halftime as Green broke into another run into the box. This time, he found forward Amir Shirazi, who slotted it in.
“We’re moving into space well,” Markou said. “A goal like that happens with precise passing, with precise movement, with precise timing.”
He pointed out how the team worked on their build-up play and said he was happy that it translated into the game.
The Marauders kept going forward, including from the counterattack. Early in the second half, Shirazi was streaking towards the goal and was taken down inside the box. Penalty.
Shirazi’s penalty kick was saved by the Guelph goalkeeper Carter Robert but he pounced on the rebound to make it 2-0.
Markou credited Green and Shirazi’s play and chemistry. The two players have built up familiarity in their time at McMaster and with Hamilton United in League One Ontario. “They know each so well, they can make that pass without even knowing or even looking, you know, that person is going to be there for them,” Markou said.
Guelph fought back. They blasted a free kick into the McMaster player wall as it hit captain Gianluca Spadafora. The referee called for handball and defender Colin Gander kicked the penalty into the opposite corner goalie Ethan Cagalj was diving.
Suddenly it was a one score game with just under 30 minutes remaining. The team changed to a 4-4-2 formation. “That kept everything out in front of us,” Markou noted. “So even though they’re getting maybe over the top, on us on the flanks, they didn’t really have that many opportunities for direct shots on target.”
He credited Cagalj and defenders Sam Richardson and Ahmad Mansour for making plays and clearances inside the box.
Morrissette said communication was crucial to stay organized. “We just had to hunker down regardless of what happens in those 20 minutes but we weren’t going to let another goal happen,” he said.
They almost did. Deep into extra time, Guelph had one final free kick. Robert joined his teammates in the box. The ball was kicked in and it found its way to Gander right in front of the goal. He shot it and Cagalj dived out to save it. The final whistle then blew. Game over.
“I was like: ‘Oh God. Oh God, I hope this doesn’t go to anything serious’,” Morrissette recalled. “Luckily Ethan got a good foot to it…in the future, we shouldn’t ever allow that to happen late in the game.”
Joy and euphoria followed that final play as the Marauders players and coaches celebrated in front of the supporters. They had won a playoff game and reached the OUA semi-finals. The players celebrated with family and friends in the stands afterwards and in the locker room.
“It’s probably one of the best feelings,” Morrissette said. “That’s why everyone wants to play playoff soccer. Everyone wants to play in those big games because you knew all the hard work we did benefited and paid off in the end.”
The Marauders have worked all season and gotten better. Morrisette said the team’s become more comfortable and healthier since that Guelph defeat in September. The team got players back from injury as the season went along, including forward Ed Bryant Florent, who came on off the bench after missing the past few games.
“We have full team composure, chemistry, whatnot and then we’ve also ramped it up physically-wise in training sessions,” Morrisette said. “I think that prepped us for facing them today.”
The Marauders were also entering a new experience as a group. With many new players – including Michigan State transfer Morrissette – on the team this year and Markou being a first-time head coach, this was their first playoff test as a team.
Markou said that playoff experience means learning everything, including the preparation and the mentality that goes with it.
“You’re going to have to give a little bit more than you usually do. You’re going to have to do things that you never thought you were going to have to do on the field and play roles that you never expected to play,” Markou said. “I said to these guys, ‘you’re going to suffer, you’re going to sacrifice but this is what you need at this level to progress.’”
With that experience also comes confidence, learning and self-discovery throughout the season. “We have all the faith in the world in their ability and their confidence,” he added. “We keep telling them: ‘We trust you’.”
Against Guelph, their trust was rewarded. The Marauders showed that confidence and ability. They showed their composure as well from facing adversity, which they’ve done previously this season.
“Our team did not buckle. They kept at it. They stayed to the game plan,” Markou said. “Guelph pressed. We held [our] nerve. We stayed very focused at key moments and that’s what got us the win today.”
Featured Image: McMaster Athletics