TOWSON, Md. — Goucher entered its final three league games of the regular season knowing that it could not afford any losses if it wanted to have a chance of qualifying for the Landmark playoffs for the first time.
While it did not come easy, the Gophers were up to the task, going 1-0-2 over that stretch and clinching the fourth spot in the conference tournament. Ultimately, only a penalty shootout defeat at top-seeded Catholic prevented the program from competing for its first league title.
"You always try to create benchmarks for your program," head coach Bryan Laut said. "Making the playoffs is certainly a tremendous accomplishment, and it was the final step to proving that we've become a legitimate college program that can compete with anyone in the country."
The closing run began with a difficult 3-3 draw at Elizabethtown, a game in which Goucher coughed up a two-goal advantage in the final 70 seconds of regulation, but held on in overtime to gain a point. The following Saturday, the Gophers twice rallied from two-goal deficits in a 4-3 comeback victory at Juniata.
"In terms of pure excitement, there was no more exciting week than that one," Laut commented. "The greatest strength of this team was their desire and their mental toughness, and that week demonstrated those qualities more than any other. They had several moments of adversity where they could have rolled over, but they never gave in."
A 1-1 draw against Susquehanna on the final day of the regular season sealed the playoff spot, with Goucher's earlier 2-0 win at Scranton giving it the tiebreaker advantage over both the Royals and Elizabethtown. Laut points to the Scranton victory, a win in which the Royals entered regionally-ranked with a 9-2-1 record (3-0 in the Landmark), as the top moment of a highly-successful season.
"We went up there against a team that was one of the favorites in the league and just played phenomenally," he said. "We outplayed them in every aspect of the game, and really limited their chances. It was a well-deserved win."
Goals were not always easy to come by this season, but one thing the Gophers could rely on was having threats to score from all positions on the field. A total of 12 players scored this fall, with five different players tying for the team-lead with three apiece. Among those five was a defenseman, Brandon Weiner (Derwood, Md./Col. Zadok A. Magruder), two midfielders, Lashaw Salta (Allen, Texas/Plano East) and Luis Gomes (Bushkill, Pa./East Stroudsburg North), and two forwards, Nate Margolis (Ivyland, Pa./Council Rock North) and Kevin Tonkovich (Lacey, N.J./Lacey Twp.).
"We had a lot of guys who had the potential to step up in key moments," Laut remarked. "For us, it was always all about team effort. When you have a lot of potential scorers, it makes it harder for people to understand who to defend and it creates more offensive opportunities."
Still, though, Goucher averaged only 1.53 goals per contest, and a lack of a consistent finishing touch prevented the program from adding to its 8-6-3 final record. This was particularly evident during a tough early non-conference schedule which included four opponents from the perennially powerful Centennial Conference.
"At the beginning of the year, we left a couple of games on the table where we probably should have better results," Laut said. "Scoring goals is the most difficult thing to do in soccer. It's all about will and desire, and as the season went on we made plays when we had to."
The offense did show noticeable improvement as the fall progressed, with 13 goals in the final five games. Salta, whose 88th-minute strike sent the Gophers into overtime in their semifinal tilt at Catholic, ended up leading the team for the season with nine points (3G, 3A).
The Gopher defense, which everyone on the field played a role in, continued to be the unquestioned top strength of the team. After allowing only 22 goals in 2013, the lowest total since the program's debut season in 1989, Goucher reduced that number down to 21 this fall, surrendering one goal or fewer in 11 out of 17 games.
The defensive effort was led all year by the backline of Weiner, who earned First-Team All-Landmark honors, Scott Mt. Pleasant (Clifton Park, N.Y./Shenendehowa), George El-Khoury (Cranford, N.J./Cranford) and Drew Phillips (Hoosick Falls, N.Y./Hoosick Falls Central School). The foursome combined to miss only one game all season, providing increased stability to an already strong unit.
"I think our back four was far and away the best we've had since I've been here," Laut said. "And besides them, Thomas Adair (Dunkirk, Md./Northern) and Tate Becker (San Diego, Calif./Scripps Ranch) were phenomenal in the midfield. We're a very difficult team to play against because everyone defends and is willing to do the little things needed to be successful."
The Gophers also had a stable presence in goal, with Nicholas Stolarz (Clark, N.J./Arthur L. Johnson) starting 16 games and finishing with a 1.19 goals-against average and four clean sheets.
Goucher's performance this season was recognized by the Landmark coaches. In addition to Weiner's first-team selection, Becker, Margolis and Salta earned Second-Team All-Landmark accolades while Laut and assistants Sean Peckham, Justin Holbrook and Ryan Martin were named Coaching Staff of the Year.
Three of those all-conference honorees are seniors, and all four departing seniors for the Gophers played key roles in this fall's success, but Laut has full confidence in the ability of his returners to keep the program near the top of the Landmark.
"We've progressed each year with a better recruiting class than the year before," he said. "And I expect that to continue next season. But we're also bringing back a lot of talented players who have experience competing in some big spots for us.
"Even without bringing anybody in, I believe we're talented enough to be in our league playoffs," Laut concluded. "And that should be the goal and the expectation next year and every year going forward for Goucher soccer."