By now, it's no surprise that the York College men's soccer team is still alive at this time of year.
The Spartans' 2-1 overtime win over Stevens last week advanced them into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division III Tournament for the fifth time since 2006. They'll attempt to reach the Elite Eight for the third time in eight years when they travel to undefeated Rutgers-Camden (20-0-2) for a 5 p.m. game this Saturday.
York (19-2-1) has never reached the Final Four despite the program's highly-successful 47 seasons.
In his 15th year at the helm of the program, Coach Mark Ludwig has steered the Spartans to their 14th-straight winning season. And while it's expected that York, winners of five-straight conference titles, will be back in the NCAA tourney, it is a bit surprising this year's group has made it this far. On paper, York's numbers are nowhere near staggering. And the Spartans are devoid of a star player. No one on the roster has double-digit goals this season.
"That's the weird thing," sophomore defender Ryan Donahue, a York Suburban High School graduate, said before Tuesday's practice. "You look at the stats and our highest goal-scorer has nine goals and the rest (of the scorers) are kind of even across the board. I think that's how it is, honestly. That's our identity. We're an even team. It's kind of balanced."
York has mustered just 43 goals in 22 games thus far, an average of less than two goals a game. It is, by far, the lowest-scoring offense of York's Sweet 16 teams (2006, 2007, 2009, 2012, 2013). It's also the fourth-lowest scoring offense of the remaining 16 teams in the D-III tournament. And while the defense is good, it's not lights-out. Opponents are averaging 0.49 goals a game against York and the Spartans have recorded 14 shutouts. Those numbers are on par with recent York teams.
"They're just winners," Ludwig said. "They compete. That's the biggest thing. We've had a lot of one-goal games this year. We've won them all (one-goal games) but (one). They fight. They find a way to win."
York has won its last three games by a goal to improve to 12-1 in one-score contests this season. The Spartans, ranked No. 9 in the latest National Soccer Coaches' Association of America poll, own one-goal victories over No. 4 Messiah, No. 5 Stevens and No. 15 Salisbury. It's all the more impressive that York has made it to the round of 16 for the second year in a row when considering the Spartans entered the year having lost six players to graduation and another seven for various reasons.
"We've kind of gelled a little bit," Donahue said. "At the beginning of the year I wouldn't say we were divided but we weren't familiar with each other yet."
Plus, Donahue feels York's two losses "" 1-0 at Susquehanna on Sept. 14 and 3-1 at Salisbury on Oct. 19 "" have actually helped the Spartans in the long run.
"Definitely a wake-up call. We had a lot of confidence. We reached as high as No. (4) in the country at one point," Donahue said. "We were flying high. It really brought us back down to earth, which we needed. I think it was good timing."
Rutgers-Camden: Ludwig said York will take a road trip to No. 3 Rutgers-Camden this Friday for a 6 p.m. practice before Saturday's game. It will be a rematch of last year's second-round NCAA game when York beat Rutgers-Camden on penalty kicks to advance to the Sweet 16.
The Scarlet Raptors returned eight starters from last year's team, including sophomore forward Mike Ryan, who last year earned NSCAA third-team All-America honors as a freshman and this year is tied for eighth in the country in goals scored (20).
"They have some talent on their team," Ludwig said. "They have a couple players that are some big-time players and are Division I transfers. But that's talent. That's not necessarily a team. I've talked to our guys about playing together as a team. I like our chances. We've faced the best in the country so far and this is just another step in our journey."