By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette — The Niagara men’s soccer team is playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time in the program’s 43-year history, but its leader has been there before.
Second-year head coach Chase Brooks reached this level as an assistant with Dayton and Northern Illinois, so he knows what it takes to compete for a College Cup.
“Soccer this time of year isn’t always pretty,” Brooks said after viewing Monday’s selection show with his team. “It’s about the team that is going to work the hardest, do the little things right and take their chances. Mistakes are gonna happen in this game. It’s about who capitalizes on them.”
That’s the style the Purple Eagles (13-1-4) have taken into every matchup this season.
“We don’t have the star players,” Brooks said. “We have the guys that are down in the ditches digging, going to work every day and not afraid to play anybody in the country.”
Niagara opened its season with a draw at Pittsburgh and later won at Syracuse, another NCAA tournament team.
The first Western New York team to reach the NCAA Division I tournament since Buffalo State in 1970, Niagara won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship on Bryan Da Cruz’s double-overtime goal. Senior Rene De Zorci was the MAAC defensive player of the year and sophomore Callum Willmott leads the team with eight goals on the year.
“Every game we have somebody new that steps up, somebody new that’s the hero,” Brooks said. “So you can’t tee off on one of our guys or stop one of our guys. They really do have to watch every single player on our team.”
The Purple Eagles will play their first-round game at 7 p.m. tonight at Michigan. If they win, they will play No. 5 seed Akron, a recent national champion and one of 16 teams that received a first-round bye.
Michigan received an at-large bid after going 10-9 this season and losing in the Big 10 championship game to Michigan State. The Wolverines are 3-0 all-time in first-round games and 7-3-1 at home this season. This is the first time the two schools have met.