Last night the Queens College Knights hosted their first home playoff game in men’s soccer history against the Mercy College Mavericks, but ended up losing 2-3 in overtime. This Knights squad is one of the, if not the, most decorated in school history, garnering the most wins in program history (13) which, again, earned them their first home playoff game ever. But that didn’t matter going into the match, as all of that was behind the team — though the scars they earned together will always be worn across their chests.
While the Knights were ranked higher in the East Coast Conference (ECC) playoff seeding, being ranked second to the Mavericks’ third seed ranking, the visiting team was not one to scoff at going into the match. The last time these two teams met, the Mavericks handed the Knights a crushing loss, besting them 3-1 way back on September 21st. The Mavericks have lost only one game since then and had played to three draws. The Knights, however, had the hot hand, riding a five-game win streak going into the night.
The Mavericks’ program has been more successful in recent memory than the Knights, as they were looking to appear in the ECC Championship for the third time in four years; they last won it in 2019, and are now looking for their fifth in program history this season. In our preceding article to this one, much of the rave was about Knights goalkeeper Dario Giovanni Cruz.
However, the Mavericks have their own difference maker in the net: Eirik Elvestad. Elvestad trails only Cruz in wins in the ECC (10 to Cruz’s 13) but ranks first in shutouts (seven) and goals-against average (0.76). It would then come as no surprise that the Mavericks have the best defense in the conference, only surrendering 14 goals in the entire regular season. With the name of the game being put the ball in the net, this was bound to be a tough fought match. That it was.
With the lights above brightened and the crowd slowly starting to make their way to the stands, both teams were going through their warmups. The smell of anticipation reeked in the air. Prior to kickoff, Maverick senior Marco Passera was awarded the Elite 19 Award, an honor given out by the ECC to the player with the highest cumulative GPA in the playoffs. After the ceremony concluded, it was time. The starting lineups were announced, and the packed crowd in Flushing roared as the announcer introduced the Knights defending their turf.
Through the first 15, it was a tough, gritty game with only a few real chances to score from either team. A well-placed corner throw-in from midfielder Adolfo Martinez Paquet was snatched mid-air by Elvestad, but it came eerily close for a Knight to make a play on the ball. Midfielder Leo Pinto had a few breakaways but was ultimately cut short of the prize. Mercy almost made the Knights pay on the other end, but Cruz had a great save on Maverick Carlos Fernandes’ shot on goal.
At the 22nd minute, Pinto was subbed out and brought off the field of play by a trainer after getting kneed in his side. However, that would not spell the end of the injury bug for the Knights. At the 36th minute, on a break, Fernandes took another shot on goal, causing Cruz and captain defender Thomas Esperoe to collide. Although the Knights stopped Mercy’s attack, Cruz was injured and laid against the goalpost for a few minutes while being looked at by trainers. While he did get back up, tragedy struck. Only a few exchanges later, Cruz gave up a header to Maverick Mateo Bacigalupo as Cruz was visibly limited in his mobility.
At the half, the scoreboard read 1-0 Mavericks on a chilly night. The Knights couldn’t really get any rhythm going up until that point, with only two shots taken in comparison to Mercy’s five. As we expected, the game was very physical through 45, as both teams totaled 14 penalties. The Knights headed to their locker room facing diversity on their home turf. Now, it was all a matter of how they responded.
Whatever Coach Frank Vertullo told his team at the break worked. The Knights wasted no time to answer the challenge presented by the Mavericks. A swift goal by defender Jose Mendez less than two minutes into the second half tied the game at one a piece. That goal was Mendez’s first goal of the season, with the assist coming from Esperoe, also his first of the year. Mendez ran towards the stands and fell to his knees in an outburst of raw emotion. The crowd erupted, as their home team was right back in it.
The offense really started clicking early in the second half, as the Knights got a few shots on Elvestad at a much more aggressive pace. They would end up having a mind-boggling 12 shots against Mercy in the half. Within what seemed like only a few minutes, the Knights got two legitimate shots on goal and kept the ball on the Mercy side of the field for the majority of the time. The closest shot was Martinez Paquet’s at the 57th minute, but it just missed.
Chants of ‘Let’s go Knights’ broke out as the fans in attendance felt the change of momentum in the game. After a tackle attempt by Esperoe in the 63rd minute, a bit of ‘extracurricular activities’ as the play-by-play announcer Tom Prizeman called it, occurred between the two teams. They started shoving and getting in each other’s face as the intensity of a playoff game started to show its face. Two yellow cards were given out, one to each team.
Then, a miracle happened.
Around the 80th minute, the Knights pushed the ball to the Mercy side of the field all the way to the box, and the Knights had a real chance to put a game-changing shot towards the goal. After Martinez Paquet couldn’t find a shot to get through the defense, defender Angel Leon Zavala eventually got the ball off a deflection and scored for the Knights. Leon Zavala circled the field and celebrated his first goal of the season with his peers as the Knight Nation in attendance exploded. Knights led it 2-1.
With only 10 minutes to go, it was a matter of keep away as the Knights tried to hold onto their lead to stamp a ticket to their first ECC Championship appearance. But, with 78 seconds left on the clock, Maverick Vasco Baptista headed the ball in past Cruz to tie the game. You could feel the air being sucked out from the crowd and the home sideline. Everyone thought the game was all but won, however you can never truly say never in sports. Unfortunately, that was true last night as well.
With the new rules in place, overtime was now two periods each lasting 10 minutes, replacing the sudden-victory rule. A five minute break ensued before the start of overtime, and the anticipation in the crowd in Flushing could be cut with a dull butter knife.
However, the passion of the crowd soon turned into desperation as the Mavericks were quick to answer the challenge presented to them by the Knights. Two minutes into overtime, Fernandes drew a foul in the box against Mendez. It would be fair to say that the call was controversial. The Mavericks were awarded a penalty kick and Martin Penafiel put the ball through the net despite Cruz guessing the placement of the ball nearly perfectly. This ended up being the game-winner.
Both sidelines were upset with the referees throughout the night due to their inconsistency. However, that controversial call in overtime that ended up costing the Knights their ECC season really caused a stir on the home sideline, and understandably so.
The Knights tried their best to climb back into the game, but the Mavericks were able to buckle down and prevent a comeback. As the scoreboard read zero after a last second header attempt by the Knights that was stopped by Elvestad, Knights players fell to the ground in despair.
While the Knights came up short in their quest for an ECC Championship, there is still hope that this loss is not the end of their season. In the most recent edition of the NCAA Super-Region 1 poll, the Knights were ranked sixth with a familiar foe, the Mavericks, being ranked two spots ahead of them. A selection show will take place on Monday, November 7th at 6:30pm EST to see if they will make the NCAA Division II Tournament. Perhaps this Knights team can join the dance, but only time will tell.
Regardless of if the 2022-23 men’s soccer team season is over or not, they will forever go down in Queens College history as one of the best teams to lace up for the pitch. With only two players graduating this year and only seven players being juniors or older, it wouldn’t be a wild prediction to guess this year’s team may be a pivot to a brighter future for the program.
All photos and videos repurposed courtesy of the Queens College Athletics department.
Editor’s Note: Earlier today the ECC announced their awards for the season. Coach Vertullo was named the Coach of the Year while a few familiar faces made All-ECC teams. Cruz and Esperoe both made First Team. Martinez Paquet and Pinto made Second Team. Mercy’s Elvestad was named Co-Goalkeeper of the Year.