SAGINAW, Mich. – The Ashland University men's soccer team won the GLIAC Tournament championship with a 3-0 victory over Northwood on Sunday (Nov. 4) afternoon to earn an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
The Eagles (8-9-3), in just their third season since a three-year hiatus, won their first GLIAC championship since 2010 and will play in their first NCAA postseason since that season. Ashland is unbeaten in its last eight games against conference teams as the Eagles have gone on a remarkable run to finish the regular season through the conference tournament.
"It's surreal really, unbelievable that it happened," said junior captain John Duldner. "I knew from the beginning of the season that we had a chance to win this tournament. Halfway through the season, something clicked. I don't know what it was, but we started playing together and got hot at the right time."
Ashland, the GLIAC's No. 6 seed, was on the front foot of Sunday's championship game from the outset. The Eagles nearly went ahead in the opening minute on a strike by junior Jordan Dees, but Corbin Cecchini made the save by dropping to the ground.
The Eagles threatened throughout the first half, while No.4 seed Northwood (9-9-1) also garnered a few chances in the AU box.
It looked as if the game would go into the half scoreless, but the Eagles struck just 24 seconds before the halftime whistle. Duldner played a ball to the right wing where freshman Haruki Kimura smashed it into the back post to give AU a 1-0 lead at the intermission.
The Eagles were not put under serious pressure in the second half, even as the Timberwolves began pushing players forward. That only made the Eagles more dangerous in their preferred counter-attacking style.
It paid off in the 51st minute as sophomore Justin Libertowski pulled in a free ball in the box, dribbled into space and scored for his 11th goal of the season and putting AU ahead, 2-0. He leads the GLIAC in scoring.
"Once we got that first goal, they started throwing guys forward and we were able to exploit their openings," said Duldner.
The Eagles put the game away in the 66th minute as Duldner played sophomore Yusuke Yasumasu free on the break and the Toyko native scored easily to make it 3-0.
"This was the game where we knew we had beaten them twice, but they have guys who can hurt us," Duldner said. "We went up 1-0 in the first half and since then, kept our foot on the gas and pounded them into the ground. We knew from the beginning we were going to win the game. When we finally won, it was an unbelievable feeling."
The Eagles rallied from an improbable position to win the tournament as the last seed, beating Purdue Northwest, 1-0, on the road on Tuesday, before rallying for a 3-2 overtime win over No. 2 seed Parkside on Friday in the semifinal.
Ashland garnered inspiration from women's soccer head coach Danny Krispinsky, who has been out all season battling health issues.
"That one was for Coach Krispinsky," said AU men's soccer head coach Oliver Slawson. "He is a real champion. That one was for him and his battle."
The Eagles will learn the site and opponent for their NCAA first-round game on Monday at 6 p.m.