Mission Improbable: DePaul's Going to the BIG EAST Dance
Oct. 30, 2010
PISCATAWAY, N.J. - There's so much more to this story than just a happy ending.
It's one of those rub your eyes, do a double-take, shake your head and smile kind of tale that reaffirms all the virtues your parents, coaches and teachers have been insisting on all these years.
Simply put, a young and inexperienced DePaul soccer team grew up just in time to pull off the improbable feat of qualifying for the BIG EAST Conference Championship tournament after a 2-0 victory over Rutgers on a Saturday night these young men will never forget.
Not only did this team with 16 freshmen persevere through a season of uncertainty and doubt, but even in the Blue Demons' finest moment, they needed a little help.
Beating Rutgers on the last day of the regular season wasn't enough.
It also took Cincinnati's 4-0 win over Syracuse to clinch DePaul's fifth-consecutive appearance in the BIG EAST playoffs.
DePaul will travel for the first round, and the opponent will be determined Sunday night after Georgetown and Notre Dame wrap up the BIG EAST season at 5 p.m. It will be either the Fighting Irish or Connecticut, and the game will be played on Thursday night.
This fairy-tale ending began taking shape when Antonio Aguilar's fancy footwork shook a Rutgers defender, providing the sophomore midfielder a one-on-one opportunity with Scarlet Knights goalkeeper Adam Klink in the 55th minute.
"I turned the defender around and shot it into the right corner," Aguilar said in describing his fifth goal of the season on a shot to the far post from just inside the 18-yard mark.
"After it went in, I just ran towards the sideline and the whole team was running at me. I jumped in the air and the guys carried me around."
The Blue Demons began celebrating in earnest during the 77th minute when freshman Ray De Leon scored his second goal in the last two games. De Leon beat the defender, went one-on-one with Klink and his rifle shot was slotted near post.
"This is awesome," said DePaul coach Craig Blazer upon hearing that Cincinnati had knocked Syracuse out of playoff contention.
"I am so happy for these guys. They just kept on working and blending together, and they never gave up.
"All of them---they have such huge hearts."
This is not your typical playoff team, going into the postseason with a 4-9-5 overall record and a 1-5-3 mark in the BIG EAST. In fact, the Blue Demons' win Saturday night was their first since Sept. 21---a stretch of 10 games.
But through it all, senior captain Alex Mangan would not let anyone give up.
"Mangan has such a tremendous heart, and he kept picking us up whenever we got down," Aguilar said. "His motivational speech before the game was awesome.
"He said we were the greatest guys he has ever played with, and that he didn't want his career to end this way.
"Oh man, that got us really fired up."
Aguilar paused to reflect for a moment on what had just transpired.
"Our season hasn't been going our way," Aguilar said. "It all came down to this last game, and we wanted it more.
"Before the game, we got in a big circle and talked. We said: `Let's do it for all the seniors. Let's come together and pull off a big win.'"
Blazer savored the moment, listening to his players singing all the way back to the team's hotel.
"They played great, and did all the little things right," Blazer said. "John Michael Kulnig had a terrific game as our goalkeeper, and the back line (Austin Toth, Andre Gutierrez, Scott Freundlich, Matt Leinauer) did an unbelievable job supporting JM.
"And then Antonio put the team on his shoulders."
NOTES: DePaul, Rutgers and Syracuse all went into the final game tied for the last playoff spot with three points in the BIG EAST... DePaul emerged from the deadlock and wound up with six points... this was the first time the Blue Demons had scored twice in a game since a 3-2 loss at Northwestern on Oct. 6... Blazer started four freshmen in the second half and two other freshmen saw action... Aguilar took three shots, and all three were on goal... Mangan had four shots with one on goal... De Leon's lone shot found the back of the net, and Gutierrez and Thiago Ganancio each had one shot... the Blue Demons outshot Rutgers 10-9 and had a 5-2 edge in shots on goal... Mangan, Charlie Mancuso and John Jandl were each issued a yellow card.