In a critical game against the SMU Mustangs Saturday night, the University of Connecticut men’s soccer team needed to give it their all to save their season and advance to the American Athletic Conference tournament.
The Huskies’ seniors had a great deal of added emotion given that it was senior night, but the likes of right back Jake Nerwinski and midfielder Kwame Awuah remained focused, leading the way as UConn secured the tie it needed to advance to the postseason.
Senior leadership critical as Huskies head to postseason
Despite a rough last couple of weeks for the men’s soccer team, which included three straight conference losses, the Huskies still had a chance to advance to the conference tournament and potentially the NCAA tournament with a win or a tie on senior night against the Mustangs. Nerwinski and Awuah, captains for two years now, made sure that the emotions of the night wouldn’t get in the way of the team’s success for the season.
“We tried not to hype it up that much, and we tried not to think about it being senior night,” Nerwinski said. “We just thought about it like a quarterfinal game. We kind of tried to forget about all that, walking out with our parents and staying focused on what we needed to do to go through.”
In particular, Nerwinski made several runs bursting into the box from his defensive position causing trouble for the opposition and creating numerous scoring chances. Awuah was fantastic in his own right as well, playing perfect lofted passes to forward Abdou Mbacke Thiam and making his own runs past the defense.
Awuah would finish with an impressive five shots (two on goal) while Nerwinski had two shots of his own. Awuah will be a little upset given that he was saved on a potential game-winning goal in overtime, in which he was one-on-one against the SMU goalie. However, the Huskies survived the game and were able to move on, which is all that mattered to the senior captain.
“I think we’re better than our record and this was a good warmup [for the postseason],” Awuah said. “We treated this game like it was a quarterfinal, like we had quarterfinals last year. And I think guys just need to remain focused all week in practice and take it game by game because that’s how the postseason is, one game at a time.”
Although neither player was directly involved in the UConn goal or the somewhat lucky bounce that equalized the game for SMU, both captains were extremely influential when it came to tracking back defensively and pressing the attack when necessary. Most importantly, however, they kept their teammates focused on getting the result they needed.
“We played with heart tonight, we worked our butts off,” Nerwinski said. “We did what we had to do to get the result and I’m happy with the guys’ mentality coming into the game and how they stuck through it for 110 minutes.”
UConn’s head coach Ray Reid agreed that the team’s mentality was fantastic. Reid was particularly effusive in his praise for Nerwinski, one of his most vital players over the last four years.
“The guys came out with a good head today,” head coach Ray Reid said. “Great effort by the boys. Jake Nerwinski was big time tonight. He’s just everything you want in a college soccer player and a kid. He’s a great leader and he was just so focused tonight.”
Next up, the Huskies head down to Florida on Friday to play in the American semifinals against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. A win would see them playing either UCF or USF in the finals Sunday at noon.
Chris Hanna is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.