To understand the 2022 season, you need to know what has happened over the past three years.
In 2019, we lost in the SUNYAC Championship 1-0 to Oneonta. Although we were devastated to fall at the final hurdle, we felt it was the beginning of a strong period for the team. We had finished second in the regular season, hosted the semi-final and won it.
We were also going to be returning a strong core of the team along with a good recruiting class. Things seemed to be going in an upward trajectory and we were excited to get to work in the off-season.
Unfortunately, we didn’t play another game until Sept. 1, 2021.
When we finally returned to the pitch, the team was different. Half of our team had not played in a college soccer game and we had a lot of rebuilding to do, but we had the talent to do it. We then made history in the SUNYAC by becoming the first team to amass 13 points in the league and not make the playoffs— not the history we were hoping to make.
We were eliminated in a convoluted tie-break system and our off-season began earlier than we would have liked.
I explain all of this as it is an important part of our 2022 season. It was all about playoffs. Nothing else mattered. As a staff, we knew we could not fall outside of the playoff picture for two years in a row, that would have a lasting effect on recruiting.
It was crucial that we rejoined the playoffs in 2022.
There were several notable games in a rollercoaster season. As a coaching staff it is our job to be the emotional regulators of the team. When they are down, we pick them up. When they are up, we try to keep them humble.
This is something that we struggled to control throughout the season. As a team we have enough talent to be considered one of the top teams in the league, but the margins are fine. When the competition is so tight, mentality becomes a major asset and this is something we are still trying to improve as a group.
There were several games, mostly away from home, where we showed incredible character and mentality. Away at Cortland, 3-1 down with 19 minutes left, 3-2 down with 20 seconds left. The group showed amazing character to claw a result back in that game.
Away at Geneseo, we played a team in great form. We traveled without our starting goalkeeper and came away with a 2-0 victory and a “man of the match” performance from our backup goalkeeper.
Away at Oswego, down 1-0 at half time in driving rain and swirling wind. Several players stepped up to the plate and took responsibility for the game, pushing the team to a 2-1 victory.
Unfortunately, our home form was not to the standard we demand. We dropped points from winning positions in half of our home SUNYAC games. A common theme in 2021 and 2022 is playing well, but not winning and this held us back all season.
As I said earlier, this was all about playoffs, and it came down to the final game. We needed points, but we didn’t know how many. It depended on all of the other results and nine out of the 10 SUNYAC teams were still alive in the playoff race on the final day. This meant every single game had meaning.
We traveled to Buffalo State knowing a win would most likely put us in and a draw would mean we needed help. We laid it on the line to the team in training that week.
This wasn’t about style points or long term goals, this was about winning now. Our staff put the team under intense pressure in training, psychological warfare was the term I used. How hard would the team try, knowing I wouldn’t let them win in games.
We made every game hard and made sure the rules made it almost impossible to win, but we wanted to see character and a determination no matter what.
Before the game, I addressed the team and told them I was with them. This was all of us. If we failed, I failed with them, and if we were successful, it was all about them. We needed every single player to want it as bad as they have ever wanted anything.
As usual on the road, we fell behind 1-0. Panic set in. Everyone started to think of the worst case scenario: missing playoffs again. We made a substitution, Rocky Bujaj, who had missed most of the season with injury. He came and immediately sparked us into life. He scored twice in 10 minutes to give us the lead.
At half time, we talked of closing things out and being professional as Buffalo State became desperate. This worked as we were more dangerous in the second half as the opposition took more risks. We didn’t close the deal and with minutes remaining we conceded a goal on their first cross into the box.
We didn’t know if this was enough or not. After a 2-2 we had to wait and see if Oswego had lost or not. We didn’t find out until 30 minutes after the game, an excruciating wait. But, we were in, that was all that mattered.
We were heading to New Paltz in the quarter finals and I believed we could win the whole thing, we had the talent. As a staff, we left no stone unturned in scouting New Paltz, knowing every single pass they would make before they knew it. We changed our tactics, for the first time all season. We were going to play on the counter attack and let New Paltz try to break us down. Their field is the smallest one in the league and it would be difficult to break down a compact block. We felt they would open up as a team and when we won the ball we would have space to attack.
Before the game, our pre game talk centered around seizing the moment and emptying the tank. Don’t leave anything in reserve, this could be it. As a staff when you are creating a game plan, you are thinking about all of the different ways it could go, but usually it is never perfect. In this game, the biggest game of the season, it couldn’t have worked any better.
We scored three first half goals to lead 3-0 at half time. The energy and intensity of the team in the first half was something special to watch. Each player knew exactly what was asked of them and they grew in stature as the game went on. We knew that we were in a great position, but there is nothing scarier than playing a team with nothing to lose. The second half felt like it lasted for 2 hours as New Paltz put us under some of the most intense pressure we have experienced as a team.
We conceded two goals to make the game as tight as it could possibly get, but the team showed the type of character that will define them for a long time. When it goes to the wire in games like this, it is not about tactics or talent, it is about what you are made of as an athlete. This group of players showed that they are made of some of the strongest stuff. They had every reason to wilt and give up, but they formed one unit and got through it together.
The celebrations after that game were amazing. I have won playoff games as a player and a coach, but they are so much more rewarding as a coach. Seeing the joy and excitement on the players faces gives me a feeling I wish I could bottle up. I know I will have experiences like that in the future, but they may not. This is what it is all about for me. When this group of players interact with each other post-Plattsburgh I know this day will come up, it will bond them forever. This is what sports do, they give us unforgettable moments that last a lifetime.
Unfortunately, we fell at the next hurdle against Oneonta, but overall this was a great step in the journey of this team. We lose seniors, but we return the majority of the spine of the team. It is our hope that this experience will enhance our players and they will use this to progress the team in the coming year.
2022 was a rollercoaster of a season, but it could be a springboard for the future. Returning to playoffs was the goal, winning a playoff game checked another box. Now we set new goals for 2023 and challenge ourselves even further— we will be back next year.
Chris Taylor is the head coach of the men’s soccer team. This Op-Ed reflects his thoughts on the season.