Hamilton, ON- Even before the first ball was kicked in the OUA playoff game against the Laurier Golden Hawks, the McMaster Marauders men’s soccer team had the focus.
It was something their head coach Tristan Joyce talked to the team about before their game against Laurier. Joyce and his coaching had been there before. They had played in those playoff games.
He said their focus in the first 10-15 minutes was the biggest thing. “A playoff game is just different,” Joyce remembers telling them. “I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t know how to put it into words. You guys are just going to feel different.”
Their focus paid off as McMaster advanced with a 1-0 win in extra time. Joyce talked to the team about doing the basic things. Doing the easy things. Doing the things they do every day.
Once the game started, their opponents came prepared as well. McMaster had to make adjustment after adjustment. Laurier was pressing them.
Meanwhile, McMaster focused on finding “pockets of space” for forwards Amir Shirazi, Cristian Alfieri and Sachin Sargeant, according to Joyce.
McMaster created more chances as the game went along. They earned nine corners. One of them stuck.
It was late in the first period of extra time when defender Damiano Refosco lined up for a corner kick. He swung the ball into the near post where Alfieri headed it in. The forward ran towards the crowd with his teammates following in celebration.
Joyce said they have six or seven set piece plays they work on. He credited Refosco and Shirazi’s delivery on those corners. “It’s almost unstoppable. We get our chances,” he said. “It’s just about timing to be perfect and that timing was perfect.”
The play unfolded just as they drew it up, according to Refosco. They have worked on corners every practice session before games. It’s about getting the timing right.
“They know the signals. They know where the ball is going to be,” Refosco said. “It’s up to me to get the service in, and Amir on the other side, and it’s up to them to get to the spots they’re supposed to be.”
Miles apart. That’s what Joyce described as the difference between Refosco now and him as a first year. It came from him working hard, learning and asking questions. As the season went on, he’s worked himself into a starter’s role.
Goalkeeper Ethan Cagalji – who’s known Refosco since Cagalji was 10 years old – noticed how he’s way more comfortable now. He noticed how he’s building relationships as well as experience. “I was happy to see that,” he added.
The second-year was also going through a fresh playoff experience. He won an OUA title last year but didn’t play in the playoffs.
Ahead of the Laurier game, he focused on being confident – showing up early, getting his warmup in, treating it like any other game. He credited the confidence his teammates and coaches have in him as well.
“I felt good. Obviously a little bit of nerves,” he said. “For the most part, I was confident, ready to play and ended up coming out and putting 120 minutes in.”
As for the player on the other end of the cross…Alfieri was coming off the bench. Joyce told him why he wasn’t starting – due to their opposition. The forward kept working hard.
Before he went on, Joyce told him: “Look. Go on. Work hard. The goal is going to come.” After creating some chances, Alfieri found his goal.
With the minutes ticking down in the second extra time frame, Laurier made one last push. Joseph Carabetta sent in a buzzing shot that Cagalji pushed away for a corner. Then, the goalkeeper went out to punch away the ensuing cross to seal the victory. He had to make some awkward saves because of the rain but he did.
“My first thought was to just keep it out of the net,” he said. “Whatever I had to do to keep it out of the net.” He could have caught the ball but he chose to punch it out.
When it came to playing extra time, the team also drew from experience. They lost to Thompson Rivers in the national quarterfinal on penalties. The returning players knew what it felt like to go through that.
“We don’t want that feeling again,” Cagalji said. “We learn from the experiences. We learn from the mistakes.”
He pointed out how the win against Laurier and their regular season finale win against Western were both convincing ones. “We played as a team and that was the most important part,” he added.
It comes from their culture. They understand that everyone comes from a different situation but works together towards a common goal. Cagalji called it a family.
The Marauders will now visit the Brock Badgers on Oct. 28 in the OUA quarterfinal matchup. They lost to Brock on the road 1-0 earlier in the season before winning their game at home 1-0.
Refosco said the key to the game will be patience. The Marauders will look to swing the ball side-to-side. “It’s going to be a hard fought match,” he added. “We’ll have to be patient, not get frustrated, stick together as a unit and wait for the goal to come just like it did today.”
Can they carry that same focus and locked in mentality into their game against Brock? Joyce plans to go over the important and simple things beforehand. Cagalj mentioned how he thinks it doesn’t necessarily come from things they do before a game. It comes from their heart.
“That’s how much these guys love the game and that’s how much they want to do something for the school,” he noted. “And, you know, potentially bring back another championship.”
Featured Image: Kevin Lassel/McMaster Athletics