Last week, the No. 5 Montclair State University Red Hawks men's soccer team faced off with Christopher Newport University in the Division III NCAA tournament second round.
The 2023 Division III season has been a remarkable one for the Montclair State's men's soccer team. The team led by head coach Todd Tumelty put up a 17-2-2 record, won the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) regular season title and backed it up by winning both the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) championship game.
The Red Hawks (ranked fifth in the latest US Soccer Coaches D3 national poll) have also advanced to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament behind a 3-1 overtime victory over Christopher Newport University.
Throughout this entire season, Montclair have performed consistently well but in reality, there has been one huge asset that has helped put the team over the edge. That has been the Red Hawks junior midfielder, Amer Lukovic, a junior forward who scored 33 goals this season, more than any D3 soccer player in the nation has in 2023.
Lukovic, who was a three-time All-State and All-American at Clifton High School, scored a hat trick in the Red Hawks round of 32 match in the NCAA tournament. The 21-year-old scored the game's first goal in the second half, before the visitors tied it up in the 75th minute. Then, the game went to overtime, where Lukovic headed the ball into the net and added another goal to complete his second hat trick of the season.
“It’s a great feeling helping my team out when they need help. Scoring goals is what I do, it’s what I love to do," Lukovic said.
The Red Hawks advanced past the second round thanks to a heroic performance from their historically outstanding striker, but they wouldn't have gotten there if their backline hadn't held the fort.
Understanding the Red Hawks
A team is only as strong as its weakest link and that was evident in the first half against a CNU team that outshot them 7-2 and forced fifth year goalkeeper Shane Keenan to make three saves. The Red Hawks vet in the net has been an important presence in a starting eleven that is mostly made up of upperclassmen. However, a freshman, forward Salem Ellisy and a sophomore midfielder Reed Karsen started for the Red Hawks in their previous game.
One interesting thing about Montclair State is among their starting 11 only five were on the Montclair State team that lost last year's NJAC championship game and four of those five were on the 2021 team. Not only was it disappointing for a successful program to lose the NJAC final, but it was worse to lose to be shutout by a close rival like Rowan.
This year’s upperclassmen Ian Chesney, Enir Radoncic, Gene Altamirano, Owen Murphy and Lukovic all watched, in tears, as their rivals lifted the NJAC trophy last Autumn. Now, an even stronger Red Hawk men's soccer team is determined to make it to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2019 when they head to Fredericksburg, Virginia for the Sweet 16.
"Obviously, it helps that we got a guy who scored 33 goals for us but defensively we do a really good job. Our midfield, they work really hard, they’ve got good engines. So, we’re a veteran group, guys who really understand, you know we’ve gone through a lot. You know not making the NCAA [tournament], losing, and some of the things that they’ve gone through over the years has helped them get to where they are today," head coach Tumelty said.
The team they face in the Sweet 16 on Saturday are none other than Connecticut College, who won the D3 national championship in 2021. That year, CCU defeated Amherst College 1-1 on penalties to hoist their first ever NCAA trophy. This year, the tough thing about facing them for MSU is that CCU play in a tougher conference, the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC). CCU finished third in the NESCAC standings with a 5-0-3 record behind Middlebury and Amherst.
When it comes to regular season and conference tournament performance, these teams have had similar years. CCU lost one game this season and finished with a 12-1-6 record, while the Red Hawks went 19-2-1. Both teams totally dominated against domestic opponents but they each lost by the same score (2-1) against Amherst, which is a sign that these two Sweet 16 opponents are very evenly matched.
What Happens When the Going Gets Tough?
One thing that stands out about MSU men's soccer's season is that they haven't dealt with adversity for any significant amount of time. They lost two games this year and both were against out-of-conference opponents. They cruised through the first month of the season before suffering their first loss to Penn State Abington on Oct. 3 and then suffering another defeat two weeks later against Amherst, who ended up ranked 13th in the last US Soccer Coaches poll.
Since that loss, the Red Hawks have won seven straight games and outscored opponents 19-4.
In the loss against PSU, Montclair's Lukovic was held off the scoresheet, but he did score against Amherst. In the postseason, teams want to play to their strengths, and so Tumelty's side will want to do everything they can to enable Lukovic to have the phenomenal success he's had all season on Saturday in the biggest game of the year.
Connecticut College are the number-seven team in the country for just as good a reason as MSU are No.5. They are consistent and their program succeeds year-after-year. But unranked Christopher Newport took MSU to overtime, while CCU outlasted No.8 Franklin and Marshall College in a penalty shootout. Beating the No. 8 D3 team in the country is a better win than failing to win in regulation against a team who were an honorable mention in the last US Soccer Coaches poll.
Nevertheless, Saturday's match shapes up to be a low-scoring affair. As a team this year, Montclair State conceded just 15 goals while CCU gave up 16. In terms of attacking firepower, the Red Hawks certainly have an advantage based on the 66 team goals they scored this season which Lukovic was responsible for exactly half of. However, you know the old saying "defense wins championships", so what will the biggest star that will suit up for this Sweet Sixteen match have in store. Will he continue his excellence and etch his name into school history?
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- NJCU Women's Basketball Down Red Hawks on Road - November 21, 2023
- Montclair Men's Soccer will Meet Recent NCAA Champs in Sweet 16 - November 18, 2023