All good things must come to an end, but the Stags’ men’s soccer team can now be mentioned in the same breath as some of the most established programs in the country such as Duke, UCLA, and Notre Dame.
The Stags’ miracle season fell just short of the sweet 16 Wednesday as they fell to No. 20 Towson 2-0 in what many considered the biggest game in school history.
“It was a most enjoyable season for our group,” said Head Coach Carl Rees.
Following the 2005 MAAC Championship loss to Marist, the Stags had a taste of how close they came to the NCAA tournament and what it would take to succeed.
This season, the Stags began with five straight wins in the MAAC to finish first in the conference at 7-2 and have the opportunity to seal the deal at home.
During the season, the Stags were led by senior captains Mike Troy and Alex Cunliffe and would need to rely on them again if they were to have success in the post season. Cunliffe led the team in points (20) and Troy tallied four goals for the Stags.
They did just that as Fairfield defeated Loyola 3-0 in the first round heading for a showdown against St. Peter’s for the Championship. Troy and Cunliffe would be counted on again as Troy scored the lone goal from an assist by Cunliffe as they defeated St. Peter’s College 1-0 for the MAAC championship
Following their MAAC championship victory, the Stags’ historic run began with Fairfield’s first NCAA victory ever, a 2-1 defeat against UConn.
“We wanted for four years to win the MAAC and to get that and then get a win versus UConn. means a lot,” said co-captain Mike Troy ’07.
The Stags magic seemed to run out on Wednesday as Towson came out on top despite second half pressure and missed opportunities by the Stags, including a penalty kick by Alex Cunliffe that was stopped by Towson goalkeeper Billy Chiles.
Kevin Ruck ’10 scored the first goal for Towson and Nino Mangione ’09 put the game out of reach at 2-0. However, the day belonged to Tiger goalie Billy Chiles who shut down the Stags for the shutout.
Despite the loss, this is the furthest any Fairfield team has ever progressed in the NCAA tournament and has raised the bar for Fairfield athletics as a whole.
“It was a fantastic experience for us all,” said Rees.
This magical run not only illustrated what an often underrated MAAC team can do, but gave Fairfield athletics a higher distinction as well.
No longer can Fairfield be known as a pushover in the first round or never able to get beyond their conference, players and coaches said.
Rees gives that credit to the players, University, and staff in “the personality and character of the people we’ve been lucky enough to attract”
Stag fans also recognize the magnitude of what Fairfield has accomplished and have shown up to support it, with more than 150 fans attending the UConn game and almost 100 against Towson.
“It’s pretty rewarding,” said Troy. “We waited four years for a MAAC Championship and to get to this stage is a credit to the coaching staff and everyone that brought us this far.”
However, the Stags are not looking at just this year, but continuing this success and further establishing themselves.
Fairfield will have many of their players returning such as goalkeeper J.P. Francini ’08 and forwards Sam Bailey ’08 and Christian Uy ’10.
The commitment beyond the players however will be key in maintaining a successful program. A continued infrastructure with the athletic department, backing from the University, and continuous effort are all facets that will allow the Stags to progress said Rees.
“[The players and staff] never quit, they always choose to take the high road. That is why we are where we are,” said Rees.
For the past decade, Rees has been a staple in Fairfield soccer as he has achieved over 100 wins, two MAAC championships, and multiple national rankings as high as 20.
This game and season are a “thank you from the players to the coaches,” said Stags leading scorer Cunliffe. “To get the first NCAA win is fabulous for myself and everyone involved.”