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Dec 3, 2007

Overlooked Minutemen on the verge of the College Cup

Less than a week ago, the University of Massachusetts men's soccer team was an afterthought. The team garnered all but a passing mention in a USA Today article on No. 1 seed Boston College, despite the fact that the Minutemen were playing the Eagles that night. That lack of attention served as motivation for an already-surging UMass team.

"It talked about how [the Eagles] were the No. 1 seed and how they felt they could really win a national championship and everything is set," Minutemen coach Sam Koch said. "I said to the guys, 'You notice that they say they're playing us, but not once do they talk about how they have to get by us for those things to happen. They're looking past you and the table is set for you guys to do the damage.'"

Whether Boston College really was overlooking its opponents is debatable, but the message worked, and UMass knocked off the tournament's top seed. Down 1-0 at the half, Minutemen assistant coach Jon Davy told the team that whoever scored the next goal would advance to the Sweet 16. Five minutes into the second half, Bryan Hogan headed in the tying goal. UMass went on to take the lead off a corner kick, and with five minutes left to play, suddenly the impossible was on the verge of happening.

"Those five minutes felt like an eternity," defender Kenny Cook recalled, but the clock finally wore down and the Minutemen came away with the biggest win in program history.

Of course, in the NCAA Tournament, there's little time to celebrate. A game against Central Connecticut State loomed on the horizon. While beating Boston College had been the highlight of their season, the Minutemen felt that if they didn't advance, their success would be considered more of a fluke than a testament to their talent.

Getting past Central Connecticut was a challenge of its own. The final box score of the 3-1 win might have indicated otherwise, but the game was tight most of the way.

"I remember looking up at the clock, and I think there were 24 minutes left and it was still 0-0," Koch said. "Yes, we had the advantage on shots [21-9], we had the advantage on possession, but the game could quickly change. One breakaway and you could be down 1-0, no matter what you've been doing. The closer we got to the end of the game with a 0-0 score, the more anxiety I was feeling."

Hogan broke the tension, scoring off a corner with just over 16 minutes left to play. He added further insurance less than three minutes later, and with just over three minutes left to play, Prince Ofosu put the game away for the Minutemen. Central Connecticut's lone goal came in the following minute.

Now, a team that just weeks ago looked questionable to make the tournament is headed to the Elite Eight. UMass was ranked 55th in the RPI heading into the Atlantic 10 tournament, meaning that if the Minutemen hadn't won the conference tournament, their shot at making the 48-team NCAA field would have been a long one at best. Their success over the past month illustrates just how much the team has grown.

"When we lost to Maine [1-0 in overtime] the first game of the season, nothing was clicking," goalkeeper Zack Simmons said. "It looked like it was going to be a long, uphill struggle."

It was challenging at times, but all the adversity has proved worthwhile. And no one is taking anything for granted. Koch and his players admit that UMass doesn't have the tradition, funding or individual talent level that a number of more high-profile programs boast, but that makes this run even more meaningful.

"We work just as hard if not harder than any team," Cook said. "It's really nice to see some recognition. We don't have all the resources other teams have, but we have heart as much as any team. It works to our advantage."

As the team approached the Boston College game, the goal was simple -- to be practicing in December. The stakes have since been elevated to a whole other level.

"I don't think that at any point during this tournament, if you look ahead, we'll ever feel like we're the sure favorites, which is good," Cook said. "Beating the No. 1 team in the country, we feel like we can play with anyone ... but we don't feel unbeatable."

That mind-set will be important as they host the University of Illinois- Chicago this weekend. The Flames have come through similar circumstances to make it this far. While the Minutemen learned who they would be facing only a day ago, UMass coaches and players want to make it clear that they are not overlooking anyone.

"We've been underestimated and counted out through a big part of the season," Simmons said. "But at this point, any team you play is going to be, No. 1, a highly talented quality team, and No. 2, on a streak and knows how to win games. ... Every win gets more and more exciting. But the reality is we're not going to be content with where we are."

Where they are is a place few, if any, imagined the Minutemen would be -- one game away from the College Cup.

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.