Even as the tournament wins piled up, each one more dramatic than the next, Colby coach Ewan Seabrook knew that the real uncomfortable moments lay ahead.
That’s when the buoyant Mules would retreat to their locker room, turn up the volume and boisterously dance to what they’d adopted as their postgame victory song: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
“Just the cheesiest song there is,” Seabrook noted.
“It was awful,” agreed senior midfielder Cam Clouse (Holliston, Mass.), “but everyone looked forward to it.”
There was nothing cheesy about what Colby accomplished last month, taking down Tufts, Amherst and Williams in the NESCAC tournament to win the program’s first conference championship.
Though the run for the senior-heavy Mules ended in the first round of the NCAA tournament, on penalty kicks against Montclair State, there was a real sense of achievement for a program that typically looks up at the league powers.
“What a way to start retirement,” said senior goalie Dan Carlson (Littleton, Mass.). “It’s pretty crazy, especially coming into the tournament as the No. 8 seed. The team definitely felt we had something to prove.”
Even as the team was muddling along around .500 most of the season, standing 6-6-2 on the eve of a must-win game against Bates, Seabrook thought many of the pieces for postseason success were in place. The defense, always a point of emphasis, was making it tough for other teams to crack them.
The losses that looked bad on the scoreboard — 3-0 to Amherst and 2-0 to Hamilton, for example — were largely even games that saw Colby on the wrong side of bad moments.
“I felt like we hadn’t peaked as a team yet,” Seabrook said. “We felt we had been doing the right things but just weren’t winning the critical moments.”
In the regular-season finale Oct. 24 at Bates, the stakes were high: The winner would claim the No. 8 seed for the NESCAC tournament; the loser would be all done.
Both goals in a 2-0 win came on first-half set plays. Ethan Fabricant headed in the first from an Asa Berzolheimer (Norwich, Vt.) delivery. The second was a David Howarth-to-Lucas Pereira-to-JackFletcher (Wayland, Mass.) beauty.
“We scored two goals on things we’d practiced the entire week,” Clouse said. “We said, if we keep playing like this, it’s going to be hard to stop us.”
The Mules were heavy underdogs when they visited top-seeded Tufts in the quarterfinals and had to work hard throughout to keep the ball out of their net. Carlson made 10 saves, including some big ones in the second overtime, but when the game went to penalty kicks, Seabrook tapped backup Matt Johnson (Medfield, Mass.), a junior who’d been cut from the team two years ago, to face the penalties.
“Honestly, it totally surprised me,” Carlson said. “I had no idea it was going to happen. It’s not anything personal. It’s not an individual issue. It comes down to what’s good for the team. … I didn’t know Matt was that good at penalties.”
Johnson’s younger brother, Will, is a team manager, and from him Seabrook heard the story of how Matt had faced 100 penalties in practice for 10 straight days to prepare himself for high school tournament games.
“He just looked good,” Seabrook said. “He’s athletic as heck. … There was a little bit of emotion from Dan, but he’s a total team guy.”
After Clouse and Howarth put away Colby’s first two penalties, Johnson extended fully to his right to bat away the try of Travis Van Brewer (Wilbraham, Mass.), giving Colby a big edge. He’d add another save on Gavin Tasker (Concord, Mass.) to win the shootout, 3-2.
That sent the Mules to Amherst for the semifinals. In a game punctuated by rain showers, they opened the scoring on one of the prettiest goals of the year, a rush that saw Kyle Douglas (Windsor, Conn.) play to Pereira, who hit Berzolheimer, who crossed to Jeff Rosenberg for the finish in what would become a 3-1 win.
“It was just a real fun game,” Seabrook said. “It was high-tempo, which it always is when you play against them. When you talk about us peaking, that was probably it.”
The final against Williams was a slugfest, the Mules getting outshot 9-3 but keeping the game scoreless and heading to penalties again. Once again, Johnson got the nod and made two saves; his final one on former Berkshire star Jules Oberg securing the title, setting off the celebration and sending Colby to the NCAAs for the first time since 1963.
“It feels great,” Carlson said. “It’s really a dream end to (the seniors’) careers. To have all the work we put in for four years validated is a really good feeling.”
The NCAA game at Montclair State was theirs for the taking. For a long time, it looked like a Pereira goal would stand up, but the hosts produced an equalizer with about six minutes to go in regulation and then turned the tables, winning in penalties.
The end stung, but the achievements will be celebrated. Without placing a single player on the All-Conference first team (Clouse, Rosenberg and Carlson were picked for the second team), the Mules peaked at the right time and sent the rest of the NESCAC a message:
Don’t sleep on Colby.
“Every day, it kind of hits you harder,” Clouse said. “Talking to some of the other senior guys, it’s like, ‘We actually did this.’”
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