In a season of firsts, Saints look to extend season in playoffs

This season has had many firsts for the Holy Cross College soccer teams.

The women’s team went undefeated for the first time in non-conference regular season play (including a win over Goshen, which is also a first).

The men’s team matched it with an equally impressive 11 straight conference games without a loss, the longest in program history, which helped them to a first-ever top-4 finish in program history.

Head Coach Omar Gallo became the first coach in program history to reach the 100-win mark when the men’s team defeated Indiana University Northwest.

Axel Valenzuela became the program points leader for the men’s program, becoming the first player to total over 54 points in his four years. Lauren Cernak became the goals and assists leader for the women’s program, becoming one of the first players to break 100 career points for the Saints.

And on Friday at 3 p.m., when the Holy Cross men’s team faces off against Judson at Saints Field to begin the CCAC Conference Tournament, they will add another.

This is the first time in program history that the Saints have hosted an opening-round playoff game (they have hosted later rounds in years prior via upsets). Should they beat Judson, it would become the Saint’s first-ever first-round playoff home win, something Gallo is ready to achieve.  

“From an achievement standpoint [hosting a first-round game] has definitely been a goal for us as a program,” he said. “Like any other goal, the minute you accomplish one goal, you want to achieve greater heights.”

Saints face difficult matchup in Judson

The Judson University Eagles are by no means an easy opponent for the Saints. Back in early September, the two teams played a gritty game that ended in a 1-1 tie. The game served as a way for the Saints to learn and grow, and it was the first game of their conference undefeated streak.

“We look at [the Judson game] as a game that allowed us to continue to grow as a team and, more importantly, allowed Claudio [Fuentealba] to grow as a goalkeeper,” Gallo said. “The way we approached it a few days after that game, showing film to the players, they understood the mistakes that we made.”

The Saints will have a few critical problems to deal with. First, Judson has a dynamic offense that offers off-the-ball difficulties. The Saints must counter that dynamism with cohesive defensive play.

Judson also boasts an incredibly tall attacking line. It will limit the Saints’ ability to have high attacking lines, as the Saints like to move the ball through the air. In this game, they will be limited to the ground, where they feel they have a better advantage, according to Gallo.

“[What makes them challenging to play] is their mobility off the ball, the interchanging of their players, how big they make the field … but if we do not do our job defensively, their players are very mobile, very technically sound on the ball and have a direct mindset to go to the goal and score,” he said. “We are just going to have to be disciplined defensively.

Saints to utilize home field advantage

Judson has been a particularly tough team for the Saints historically. Including this season’s 1-1 draw, the Saints are 5-8-2, dating back to 2009. In the two squads’ last five meetings, however, the Saints have gone 2-2-1, with the Eagles having a two-goal differential advantage.

Gallo is particularly excited that the team now has a home-field advantage.

“It gives us a greater opportunity to win,” he said. “Any time you are playing at home you have the fan support, the guys are used to the environment there is no need to travel … it allows them to stay within their routine.”

Should the Saints defeat the Eagles, their likeliest opponent would be top-seeded and nationally ranked Olivet Nazarene, whom they tied 2-2 in their regular-season finale.  

The Saints, though, are not overlooking anyone. Instead, they are looking to take it one game at a time, Gallo said.

“Everyone has bought into one game at a time,” he stated. “What I appreciate the most is the mindset of the guys; they have grown through every game, and the key factor is the discipline over the course of these last 11 games.”

Women’s team looks to stay hot, pull upset

Much like the men’s team, the women’s team put together a solid undefeated streak, winning three of their last five games and securing their spot in the playoffs. Unlike the men’s team, however, the women’s team will head on the road to Bourbonnais, Illinois, to face the regular season champion, the Olivet NazareneTigers.

The Saints were not quite able to finish their season on a 4-0-1 streak. Their first-round opponent, Olivet Nazarene foiled those hopes in the season finale. In that game, the Saints lost 0-3 in a game that might seem like a bit of a lopsided affair on paper. Instead, Gallo sees it as a lesson the team can use to grow.

“As coaches, every moment is a teachable moment,” he said. “When you go back and you look at the result we had last week, we were actually pleased with the way we played from an attacking standpoint. We conceded a couple of goals that we know that if we limit those mistakes, we have a chance to actually go there and win against Olivet.”

Historically, the Saints are 0-14 against the Tigers. However, Gallo and the coaching staff both believe that the new adjustments they have made will allow them to compete with the Tigers.

“The last game we played against them, we went into more of a high pressing defensive shape,” he said. “This game, we are going into more of a mid-block and focus a lot on keeping the ball in front of us and forcing them to get impatient and pick our moments to win the ball and transition and counter them.”

The two teams are set to face off on Nov. 5 in Illinois at noon CDT.

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