Oakland men’s soccer claims back-to-back tournament championships

“All teams go through adversity. Are we going to use that as an excuse or are we going to use that as an opportunity to unify ourselves and come out stronger?” 

That’s the question head coach Eric Pogue said has shaped the Oakland men’s soccer team this season. 

When the 2015 campaign began in August, expectations were high for the returning regular season and tournament champions. 

Oakland was unanimously picked to finish first in the Horizon League preseason poll after not only appearing in the NCAA tournament in 2014, but also advancing to the second round after an upset victory over No. 24 Kentucky. 

On top of that, 20 players from that team were returning to this year’s roster. 

“It’s always tougher because people just assume that it’s going to be easy and it’s not. It’s hard,” Pogue said.  

“Guys go from being goal players to being leaders and sometimes that takes time.”

The pressure from the high expectations makes up just a portion of the adversity the Golden Grizzlies had to overcome this season. Fighting through ups and downs throughout the season, recovering from games they should’ve won and battling injuries are among other things on the list, according to Pogue. 

But on Nov. 14, under the lights at Flames Field in Chicago during a below 50-degree fall night, the team showed that its resiliency out shined the adversity it faced in the recent months as the players hoisted the Horizon League championship trophy for the second year in a row with a 1-0 victory over No. 6 Wright State. 

In Pogue’s words, the adversity became an opportunity, not an excuse. 

A thrilling victory

The championship game was a defensive battle by both teams. The scoreboard remained blank through the first half and the beginning of the second until senior captain and tournament MVP Matt Dudley scored off a free kick in the 65th minute. 

After the goal, Oakland never looked back on its way to claiming back-to-back tournament titles for the first time in Horizon League history. The victory was also the fourth tournament championship for the Golden Grizzlies this fall.

Goalkeeper Elliot Tarney, who was also named to the All-Tournament Team, recorded his third straight shutout and seventh shutout of the year. 

“Breaking records, that’s been our year this year. Navy first off, Green Bay and today, back-to-back Horizon League champions so, onwards and upwards from there,” Tarney said after the victory. 

“We got another record to break —NCAA that is — so I think we’re happy as a team overall.”

Dudley also had the game-winning assist off a corner kick to senior Matt Rickard in Oakland’s semifinal overtime victory against Cleveland State on Nov. 12. 

Rickard and Derek Nowak rounded out the list of Oakland players to make the All-Tournament Team.

The season’s turning point 

With the win, Pogue tabs his 60th victory at Oakland and earns his third NCAA tournament bid. 

“Our seniors are going to leave having won three of four championships … Talk about leaving a legacy and seizing the opportunity and the moment,” Pogue said. 

“I think we’re excited, but it’s not unexpected. Although we kind of had an up and down year, the expectation is always for us to compete for championships.”

Pogue reflected on what he believed to be this season’s turning point — when he received a red card during the Michigan State game on Oct. 28. 

He said in that moment, he was frustrated with how the season was going and he let it get the best of him.

But after the defeat, Pogue said he learned a valuable lesson from what he called a display of his own lack of discipline and accountability.

“We all make mistakes and at the end of the day, we still have all these goals in front of us,” Pogue said. 

“Although we aren’t happy with where we’re at, all our goals are in front of us to accomplish. The players play the game, I don’t kick one soccer ball. It’s their goals and it’s our job to work with them and prepare them as best as we can to achieve those goals.”

He added that he “changed his approach,” and now, the team is on a four-game win streak and preparing for its seventh trip to the NCAA tournament since joining Division I.

What’s next?

Oakland (10-8-1) will play in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. in Dayton, Ohio against the Flyers (13-5-3). 

Oakland defeated Dayton 2-0 earlier this season on Sept. 12. 

“We’re not done. We expected to be here, we expected to be back in the NCAA tournament and we’re not going to be happy just being there.,” Pogue said.

“We want to compete and win more.”