Sunday, November 17, 2013

Gonzaga soars by Gaels, hope midnight howl enough to get selection committee's attention

Ludwigs and Phillips provided plenty to celebrate Sunday in home finale | Photos: Gerald Barnhart - GALLERY
Aside from one long-range effort that was on the mark for the Gaels, the Gonzaga Bulldog men completely dominated the team's home finale en route to a 3-1 victory Sunday in a showdown for third place in the West Coast Conference. More importantly, the Bulldogs put an exclamation point at the conclusion of their impressive 2013 campaign hoping that it would be enough to send the Zags into the NCAA tournament via the selection committee, which will announce the field Monday morning.

"Obviously when you win, you love it; it's what you play for," said Gonzaga head coach Einar Thorarinsson. "I think the guys after the disappointment of Friday came back - and we knew what we had to do; and hopefully we've done enough to get us into the tournament, but it's in the hands of the committee now because we didn't win the conference. Our RPI has been really high - or low, whichever way you want to look at it. We are hopeful, but obviously we are very happy today winning this game."

After Friday's crushing narrow defeat, 1-0, at the hands of Santa Clara in the frigid, drizzling rain, the Bulldogs came out flying and went right at the visiting Gaels right from the opening whistle and never let up, putting forth arguably the team's best offensive outing of the season with nearly every player in the attack, starters and reserves, clicking throughout the match. Clark Phillips, with two goals, and Lars Ludwigs, who tallied a goal and assist as well as sending three more efforts off the woodwork, were the standout performances though.

The all-out attack came to a momentary pause in the 11th minute when a ball into the area led to a leaping head collision between a pair of players that halted play for several minutes and left one SMC defender sidelined with an apparent concussion the rest of the game.

The Zags, though, wasted no time when play resumed, collecting the ball at midfield off of the free kick taken by goalkeeper Lucas Champenois. It was played forward into space by Clark Phillips for Jakub Granlund, who drove along the right edge of the area all the way to the end line before slicing the ball into the middle where Ludwigs crushed it from about five yards and celebrated with an exuberant, frustration-freeing scream and tightly clenched fists.

"I thought the guys, once they got the goal, everything was just clicking for them. Alec Cutter (Spokane, WA) has really come on lately. Obviously Clark has been good for us all year. Jakob, our freshman has been good, and Conner Bevans and Zach Hamer," Thorarinsson said of the fantastic chemistry that did not skip a beat no matter who came into the lineup off the bench for the attack.

With nearly a half-hour elapsed, the Bulldogs nearly pushed the lead to two when Phillips chipped a ball over the top that put Granlund behind the defense. He did well to shoot from about 10 yards off the bounce but the goalkeeper did well to stop it at the edge of the six and jump on the loose ball after the rebound.

Two minutes later the Zags had a brilliant counter attack that nearly resulted in a goal as well. Nick Hamer received the ball around the midfield stripe along the left touch line and drove forward, pushing it ahead to Granlund about 40 yards out. Granlund continued the run up the left flank for about 20 yards before dropping it back inside to the advancing Hamer, who had drifted inside. Hamer, cutting squarely across the field five yards out from the area then sent it further to the right via Cutter, who turned and began to work to the left when a Gaels defender knocked the ball away toward the right directly into the path of Ludwigs streaking up the right side. Ludwigs advanced through the right side of the area, taken it nearly all the way to the end line before unleashing a tight-angled shot that beat Champenois near post only to ring off the woodwork instead of going in.

Nick Hamer (Spokane, WA) was one of the team's six seniors honored pre-game along with defenders Josh Phillips, Greg Carter and Andrew Owenson, striker Cutter, midfielder Nikolai Littleton and goalkeeper Ryan Caballero, who finished the campaign with seven shutouts and a goals-against average of .921.

"Time goes too fast. All those guys that played, I just can't believe that they're gone... so hopefully we get that postseason," the 19-year Bulldog coach said of the graduating class. "I don't want to speculate on it, but I think so. There are two, three, four that definitely have a future."

Five minutes before the break Conner Bevans nearly scored, hitting a ball off a high bounce inside the box first-time only to see it go a little high.

It did not take the Bulldogs long in the second half. Three minutes in the Zags faked a short corner with Hamer out to receive the restart, but they took advantage of the spread-out defense with Ludwigs sending the corner from the left to the far side of the six where Phillips came flying in and nodded it down past the keeper and the defense inside the near post.

Phillips, who caught fire, wasn't done. Four minutes later a long ball from Nick Hamer up into the left flank to Zach Hamer allowed him to take a few touches with the defender not exerting any real pressure. He proceeded to send a square ball into the center of the area where Phillips one-timed it in from a yard behind the penalty spot.

Despite having a three-goal lead and limiting the Gaels opportunities, for the most part, to corners and free kicks, the Zags were unusually anxious for the final half-hour of the game, showing frustration at further opportunities that went for naught or calls that went un-whistled by the referee, including a pair of penalty shouts. It was not surprising, though, considering the previous weekend they gave up three goals in a stunning four-minute span in the first five minutes of their loss at San Diego.

Those fears were given even more life in the 62nd minute Ever De La Torre scored on a fantastic strike for Saint Mary's. With a little bit of rare freedom on the ball, the midfielder drove forward for about 15 yards and launched a perfect, line-drive effort low from the long-range on right side that found the far left corner of the goal out of Ryan Caballero's extended reach from about 26 yards.

The Bulldogs nearly restored the lead a mere four minutes later. With the team already in the offensive third, Nick Hamer got the ball about 40 yards out on the left side and drove forward briefly before sending the ball in to Phillips outside the arc. With his back to goal, Phillips made a brilliant move by rolling the ball backwards off the bottom of his boot into the path of the onrushing Ludwigs, whose shot smacked off the bottom of the left post from the top of the box.

Ludwigs continued to fight for more though and in the 75th had double-take opportunity denied at close range with the initial redirection of a ball from Cutter stopped point-blank by the keeper and the follow-up chance on the rebound going off the left post.

The win gives the Bulldogs are third in the WCC for the first time since 2008 and have an overall record of 10-6-3,  their first double-digit victory tally since 2000.

"We are happy to get 10 wins; we haven't done that in a while. There were disappointments along the way, but overall we are very happy. I think we gave up 18 goals total this year."

Stating Their Case - The At-Large Argument for Gonzaga

The Zags have a 10-6-3 record and finished third in the West Coast Conference. This season, the team defeated two opponents that were ranked at the time, winning on the road 2-0 at UC-Santa Barbara (then #16, currently #10, RPI #8) and in Chicago 2-0 against Wisconsin (then #21, currently #13, RPI #29).

On the same weekend as the Santa Barbara win, they downed Cal Poly, who were coming off a huge 3-0 upset several days before at UCLA (then #6 - currently #2, RPI #1), 1-0 in overtime. The trip to Chicago also saw them fall narrowly 1-0 to UIC (currently #23, RPI 35). The Zags surprising season started with a hard-fought meeting with the University of Washington, a tight contest that saw them fall narrowly 1-0 to the Huskies (then #21 - currently #3, RPI #2).

In conference play, the Bulldogs swept league-leading Loyola Marymount with a 2-1 home win and a 1-0 road victory and both losses to second-place Santa Clara were by one goal.

With all of that, the Zags came into the weekend ranked 21 in RPI published by the NCAA, the highest mark among the WCC schools with LMU coming in at 53 and Santa Clara at 48.