Champion Blackbirds earn playoff spot on Kunisawa's clutch goal
By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
They went a month without a win, or a single goal for that matter.
They dropped their first two Northeast Conference games on their home field and appeared on the brink of packing it in for the season after capturing each of the previous two NEC titles.
So it came as no small surprise Sunday afternoon in Emmitsburg, MD, when the LIU-Brooklyn women's soccer team somehow, someway punched its ticket back to the NEC Championships for the ninth consecutive season.
"We got in, huh?" 14th-year Blackbirds coach Tracey Bartholomew chuckled from her office at the Downtown Brooklyn school two days after Sunday's heart-stopping 1-0 overtime victory at Mount St. Mary's.
Shino Kunisawa scored a 91st-minute goal and fellow senior Jessica Sexton posted her fourth shutout of the regular season as the Blackbirds (7-10-1 overall, 5-3 NEC) completed a stunning run back to the playoffs with their fourth win in five matches, each of which came by a single goal.
“When we weren’t winning, everybody was telling us it was a rebuilding year," noted Bartholomew, whose club opened with a dismal 2-9-1 mark after going goal-less and winless in six straight matches from Sept. 15 to Oct. 11.
"But we just kept telling the girls, 'We’re not rebuilding, we’re reloading. We have the talent to get back to the NEC Championship.'" she added. "All the credit goes to the girls and what they’ve been able to do.”
Kunisawa took advantage of a poor clearance by a Mount defender to flick in LIU's momentous tally early in the extra session on the Blackbirds' season-high 25th shot of the do-or-die match.
“We’ve traditionally had seniors come up with incredible plays or goals or setting somebody up and she has followed suit with that," Bartholomew said of Kunisawa, a native of Kochi, Japan who spent two seasons at Laramie County Community College in Wyoming before helping the Blackbirds to their second straight NCAA Tournament berth last year.
"It’s great to see her get rewarded because she works so hard," Bartholomew added. "She’s a quiet leader, so it’s her play that picks up others around her.”
Sexton finished with three saves for the resilient third-seeded Blackbirds, who will take on No. 2 Fairleigh Dickinson on Friday afternoon at 2 p.m. in Loretto, Pa., for the right to advance to their fifth NEC championship match in the last six seasons.
LIU dropped a 2-0 decision to FDU here on Oct. 11, capping their season-high losing streak.
But Bartholomew's rejuvenated crew is ready to deal out some payback Friday, and perhaps even grab its third straight NEC title come this weekend, matching the achievement of the Blackbirds' dynastic men's basketball program.
“You have a certain feeling ... it’s hard to describe," Bartholomew said of her club's renewed spirit. "The girls feel much more confident about their playing ability. I think for us to have another chance to play FDU, having lost to them, it’s great.”
It’s certainly great news for the Blackbirds. Not so much for the teams that now have to go through them on the path to a championship.
If it weren't for penalty kicks, the Brooklyn College Bulldogs and CCNY Beavers might still be playing.
Deadlocked after 110 minutes for the second time in as many meetings this season, the CUNYAC rivals' respective campaigns came down to whom would blink first in the nerve-shattering penalty kicks round during Saturday's league semifinals at BC Field.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs (10-6-2), neither senior captain and Xaverian High School alum Peter Valvalle or freshman Kenny Benitez of Brooklyn's Leon M. Goldstein High School could convert on their final penalty attempts, leaving BC with a hard-to-swallow 1-1 (4-3) loss to CCNY.
"We were a bit unfortunate tonight," said BC head coach Rawle Hensford, whose team will now await an invite to its second consecutive ECAC Metro Tournament.
These teams also battled to a 1-1 regulation tie in the Oct. 23 regular-season finale on Randall's Island.
The Bulldogs, who had defeated York, 2-1, in last Wednesday's CUNYAC quarterfinals, appeared fit to advance to this Saturday's league championship tilt against Baruch when Marco Thimm-Kaiser opened the scoring in the 20th minute of the semifinal match.
But CCNY leveled the contest just eight minutes later as Gregory Beatty headed a throw-in past BC netminder Kamil Ostrowsky.
Despite a huge advantage in shots (17-3) and attempts on goal (6-1) over the final 45 minutes, the Bulldogs were unable to get one past Maxwell Berkow.
Forced into the sudden-death penalty round after a 20-minute stalemate over two overtimes, BC again looked primed to move on when Dmitry Prokofyev and Thimm-Kaiser staked the Bulldogs to a 2-1 lead on back-to-back makes.
The Beavers, however, responded with three straight successful attempts as Allin Sandru, Nicolas Corrao and Samuel Nkama converted on successive tries.
Benitez' misfire on BC's final attempt to forge a 4-4 deadlock ended the Bulldogs' hopes of lifting the CUNYAC Championship Trophy next weekend on their home field.
"We dominated play, but were unable to get the go-ahead goal," noted Rensford, who guided BC to a 13-5-3 mark, including a 4-2 loss to Baruch in the CUNYAC Final, last season on his way to earning Coach of the Year honors. "We credit CCNY as they found a way to keep us off the board and held their nerves in penalty kicks."
Despite the defeat, BC enjoyed its second straight winning season and improved to 3-2 in CUNYAC playoff games during that stretch.
Fortunately for Bulldogs soccer fans, all is certainly not lost.
The BC women, coming off last Wednesday's regular season-ending 2-1 double-overtime loss to Old Westbury, will begin pursuit of their first-ever CUNYAC crown Wednesday evening at BC Field against CCNY.
The Lady Bulldogs, in only their second full season of existence, went 13-3 under the watchful eye of program founder Patrick Horne, posting a 10-1 mark on their home field, which will host the entire CUNYAC Tournament.
BC topped the Lady Beavers twice during the regular season.
The Bulldogs posted a 2-0 triumph at Randall's Island on Sept. 7 behind goals from junior transfer Bergelie Louis and freshman sensation Jordan Kerwin before beating CCNY, 1-0, here on Oct. 12 on the strength of senior Shani Abrahams' tally.
“The team is showing the level of maturity that I expected to see at this point in the season,” Horne said following the second win over CCNY. “The important aspects of their game are coming together and they are looking more and more like a well organized and focused unit.”
The St. Francis Brooklyn's men's team is down to its last strike.
The Terriers, who appeared playoff-bound for sure after opening the season 8-3-1, have dropped two of their last three matches and will need a win at neighborhood rival LIU-Brooklyn on Sunday to secure an NEC Tournament berth.
St. Francis lost a 2-1 decision at defending NEC champion Fairleigh Dickinson last Friday night in Teaneck, N.J., dropping its league record to 3-3.
With FDU (2-3-1) and LIU (2-3-1) hot on their tails, the Terriers must win Sunday at LIU Field to secure one of the four coveted berths in the championship tournament.
The Blackbirds could have entered the regular season finale with control of their own destiny, but suffered a 1-0 loss to Sacred Heart in Fairfield, Conn., on Sunday.
Kickoff is scheduled for high noon.