WILDCATS 0, CATAMOUNTS 1
DURHAM, N.H. — All great dynasties must one day fall. Whoever is on top will always be the one with the biggest target on their back. Rome stood for centuries as the eternal city. But eventually, the Goths burst through its gates to pillage and loot. The University of Vermont (UVM) Catamounts (13-4-2, 6-1-1) played a similar role Sunday afternoon in Wildcat Stadium. The three-time defending champion University of New Hampshire (UNH) Wildcats (16-1-2) saw their dynasty and undefeated record besieged and eventually fall in a 90-minute clash for the America East Championship.
Vermont was up for the task of upsetting the No. 6 team in the country and a 68th minute belter from graduate student Yves Borie unseated UNH as top dog in the America East for the first time since 2017.
UNH head coach Marc Hubbard said the team simply wasn’t at their best, and Vermont was.
“Half of our team did not play to their potential,” said Hubbard. “[Vermont] was first to everything and made it very difficult for us to build and create a good rhythm. And we couldn’t figure it out.”
But just as the sack of Rome did not spell the end of the Roman Empire, the loss of the America East is not the end for UNH.
The Wildcats earned the 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a first-round bye to go along with it. Hubbard and his players have emphasized throughout this season that their goal is to win an NCAA Championship. The road won’t be easy, though. If UNH wins in the second round, they will likely face the No. 1 seeded Oregon State Beavers (12-2-3, 7-1-2) in the third round.
A win in the America East championship would have secured UNH a higher seed, so how did such a golden opportunity slip through the Wildcats’ hands? Well, it was a combination of injuries, fatigue and a hungry, dangerous Vermont team.
The first half was a cagey affair. Both teams were feeling it out and seemed jittery. UNH wasn’t able to establish control of midfield which they often do for most of the 90 minutes. Vermont didn’t look all that dangerous, barring a half volley that junior keeper Jassem Koleilat handled easily.
New Hampshire’s attack had its moments but never managed to beat the America East Goalkeeper of the Year, senior Nathan Silveira. Sophomore Yannick Bright came the closest with a low shot to the left corner from 20 yards out. Silveira was there with a full-extension save to palm out the ball and keep the score 0-0 which it stayed for the remainder of the half.
Bright went down with an injury just before halftime and didn’t return for the second half. Bright has been critical to UNH’s style of play this season. He sits just in front of the back four in UNH’s 4-1-3-2 formation. In this role, he distributes the ball to the midfielders and attackers while also helping to shield the defenders. Bright is perfect for this role with the technical ability on the ball as well as having the size to absorb the punishment that comes with the position.
With Bright down, Hubbard was forced to change up his lineup. Junior Rory O’Driscoll, who usually plays as one of the midfield three, dropped into Bright’s spot. O’Driscoll is a couple of inches shorter than Bright and a less physical player. Vermont did their best to capitalize on the change and began a campaign of fouls and hard tackles on O’Driscoll. The referee was reluctant to give cards all game, and the Catamounts exploited the hesitancy. O’Driscoll was kicked, elbowed, bowled over and tripped more times than anyone else on the pitch.
It wasn’t just reckless physicality from Vermont, however. Their physical play helped them neutralize UNH’s midfield distribution and shut off the valve to the Wildcats attack. New Hampshire managed just six shots and only two on goal in 90 minutes of play.
Vermont’s offense was hardly dominant. The visitors mustered only one more shot on target than UNH. But that one was a goal of the highest quality. Borie leaned back and unleashed a slicing volley from just outside the box. The connection was perfect, and the ball found the top netting to the right of a diving Jassem Koleilat.
The goal was like the final crash of the battering ram against the gates before the invaders rush into the city to take what they please.
The rest of the game was composed of the defenders’ desperate attempts to hold off the would-be usurpers. Valiant attempts were made, but there was no going back once the defense was breached. Vermont is a well-organized team. They closed ranks and held off the Wildcats for 23 minutes.
Hubbard made some interesting substitutions during the final third in an attempt to turn the tide. With Bright out and O’Driscoll in his place, sophomore Dylan Maxon was cycled into midfield. Maxon had rarely entered the game for UNH this season with the game on the line.
Soon after the Maxon sub, fifth-year right-back Sam Henneberg looked to be in discomfort and was replaced by junior Gustavo Rodriguez, who had played a combined 57 minutes before the championship. The moment seemed to have gotten to Rodriguez, who blasted an attempted cross out of play in one of the most dangerous UNH attacks during the attempted comeback. It was a spot senior Chris Pinkham likely would have filled, but the veteran Wildcat was out of the lineup with Covid-19.
For a UNH team that is one of the deepest in the country with talent, things looked thin. It was a puzzling time to have inexperienced players during the last gasps of a championship game, but Hubbard gave some context to the injuries and substations.
He said that players like Yannick Bright would have re-entered the game had the team been in a do-or-die position.
“We weren’t in that position, so we were being cautious,” said Hubbard.
Hubbard added the team was in a good position for Sunday when they will face the winner of North Carolina (11-6-1, 4-4) and Loyola Maryland (10-6-3, 7-2). A tournament run is still on the table if the ‘Cats can play to their potential and get healthy. UNH will host one of these teams on Sunday at 2 p.m. from Wildcat Stadium.
Photo courtesy of Jess Speechley