Brandeis soccer midseason review

At the midpoint of the 2012 Brandeis soccer season, the Judges are in the midst of a historic campaign.  After earning simultaneous national rankings for the first time, the Brandeis men and women have each won nine of their first 10 contests.  At 9-0-1, the ninth-ranked men have tied their program record for longest unbeaten streak at 15 in a row dating back to last season. The 9-1 women, ranked  22nd in Division III, have recorded shutouts in each of their nine victories. Here’s a quick review of their seasons so far and a look ahead to the rest of the challenging schedule.

The Brandeis men, in head coach Mike Coven’s fourth decade on the sidelines, earned their first national ranking since 1996 this season. They’d won 14 in a row before earning a dramatic 1-1 tie with Rochester in their University Athletic Association opener on Saturday evening. The Yellowjackets scored seven minutes before halftime, marking the third time this season the Judges fell behind after 45 minutes. Forward Tyler Savonen ’15 rescued the Judges with 5:03 to go in regulation with an unassisted strike from 12 yards out for his fourth goal of the season.  “This team is so courageous,” beams Coven. “They battle until the very end, so you can’t count us out of any game. Intensity and passion are key to soccer, and we play with that, and a decent level of talent, to boot.”

All season long, including the win over Rochester, the Judges also got stellar goaltending from Blake Minchoff ’13, who made a career-high eight saves, including two in overtime, to preserve the tie and earn UAA Player of the Week honors. An All-UAA selection last season when he set a school record for shutouts per game, Minchoff has been just as successful this season, even if the stats don’t quite bear it out the same way. “A lot of the goals he’s give up haven’t been Blake’s fault,” Coven explains. “We need to be better on set pieces.”

The Judges, one of 13 unbeaten teams left this season, have been led offensively by the senior duo of Sam Ocel and Lee Russo. Ocel’s seven assists rank seventh among all Division III players, while Russo’s nine goals are 23rd. The two hooked up for one of the most dramatic goals in recent memory, with Ocel heading in Russo’s throw-in in double overtime to defeat local rival Babson, 2-1, in the 60th meeting between the two teams. Russo, who has scored three game-winning goals this season, has moved into 11th place on the Judges’ career scoring list with 73 points. He also needs one more goal to become the ninth player in school history with 30 career goals. “Sam was All-New England last season and he just as good this year,” Coven says. “And Lee has managed to get better every single season he’s been here. He’s playing All-America caliber this year, really becoming a force.”

With the success, the Judges are also playing to fantastic crowds. The season has seen the emergence of “Coven’s Corner”, a cheering section named for 40-year head coach Mike Coven. The group was raucous in the squad’s win over Babson  - you can see a Youtube video of the winning goal here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9nO6vgBtUQ&feature=plcp .

“The fan support had been great. A large crowd in your corner always makes you play better,” Coven claims. “And this is as great an atmosphere as we’ve had in years and years.”

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For the women, soccer this season has a lot in common with an episode of Sesame Street: brought to you by the letter ‘D’.

And it’s not just 34-year head coach Denise Dallamora – known as “D.D.” by her colleagues, either.

This year, the D also stands for “defense”.  As in, nine shutouts in 10 games, second in Division III in the most recent NCAA statistical report. Or a .951 save percentage, ranked sixth, and a 0.20 goals-against average, seventh best. As in, holding a University of Rochester squad, who they had not defeated since 2003, to just four shots in a 1-0 UAA victory.

There are two aspects to this defensive mastery that make it all the more impressive.

First, the starting back line does not have a single senior - and only one returning player, at that. The unit is anchored by Kelly Peterson ’14, an All-UAA honorable mention as a sophomore, with as accurate and powerful a foot from the back line as you are going to see in Division III women’s soccer. Peterson, along with Emma Eddy ’15 (a transfer from Union College), Allyson Parziale ’16 and Haley Schachter ’16, make up a quartet that never played together before this season. “They work hard and are completely coachable,” says Dallamora. “They pick things up in a snap.”

On top of that, the Judges have been using a rotation in goal all season long. Francine Kofinas ’13, one of only two seniors on the squad and the backstop of the team’s NCAA squad in 2010 as a sophomore, has been joined by Michelle Savuto ’15. Kofinas has started all 10 of the Judges’ contests, with Savuto taking over in the second 45 minutes. Together, the duo have only allowed two goals all season, in a 2-1 loss to Bowdoin College on Sept. 15, when the Polar Bears scored once in each half. The Judges showed a return to that 2010 NCAA form with a 2-0 win over then-23rd-ranked Springfield on Sept. 8, while a 1-0 win over Gordon on Sept. 18 is the Fighting Scots’ only blemish this season. With their nine shutouts, Brandeis is already one shy of tying the school record for a season. “Francine and Michelle have made some amazing saves to keep us in these games,” Dallamora explains. “Against Bates, against Rochester, they came up huge.”

That letter ‘D’ also comes up when discussing the other end of the field for the Brandeis women, where it stands for Dara, as in leading scorer Dara Spital. A transfer from Division I Central Florida, Spital’s scoring punch was a factor sorely missing from the 2011 squad. At the midway point of the season, her eight goals are just five fewer than the entire team scored last year. Even more impressive is the way she and her teammates have made them count. Since their loss to Bowdoin, Brandeis has won four straight 1-0 games, and Spital has scored the game-winner in three of them, including her strike with 10 minutes to go in regulation against Rochester. With six game-winning goals this season, she is tied with two others for the NCAA Division III lead in that category. “Dara is workhorse,” Dallamora gushes. “She is talented, but she is also the ultimate teammate.  She works hard, but is still unselfish.”

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With nine games each remaining on the schedule,  including six in the UAA, the real tests for the Judges are yet to come. The men might be ranked 10th by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, but they are still the third-ranked team in the UAA, behind #4 Carnegie Mellon (9-1) and #6 NYU (9-0) Chicago (5-2-2) and Washington University (5-3-1) have both been ranked at some point this season and Brandeis will have to face them on the road. On the women’s side, their schedule includes top-ranked Emory (7-0-2) at home on Oct. 26 and No. 8 Washington U. (also 9-1) on the road on Oct. 14. Case Western Reserve (6-2-2) appeared in the rankings earlier this season while Carnegie Mellon (6-1-2) is knocking on the Top 25 door.

The Judges return to Gordon Field in early October with non-conference night games midweek. The men face Wheaton on Wednesday and the women take on Babson on Thursday. Both games start at 7 p.m. On Saturday, Oct. 7, Case Western Reserve is in town for a UAA doubleheader, with the women at 11:30 a.m. and the men immediately after at 1:00 p.m. You can follow the games via LiveStats at http://livestats.prestosports.com/brandeisjudges, or listen live at http://www.wbrs.org