WASHINGTON, D.C. – Please pardon U.S. Merchant Marine Academy head soccer Mike Smolens for using such superlatives as "awesome," "terrific" and "great" to describe his team's performance and players in the Landmark Conference men's soccer final on Saturday afternoon.
After all, he had every right to be elated after the three-seeded Mariners stunned top-seeded Catholic University to capture the conference crown via a 1-0 victory and clinch a spot in their third consecutive NCAA Division III tournament.
"This is awesome," Smolens said after junior forward Cody Kessler scored the lone goal of the match and junior goalkeeper Gary Poulin made eight saves as the Mariners continued their giant killing after upending No. 2 Drew University, 3-0, on Wednesday.
Helping support the Mariners were Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood and Maritime Administrator David Matsuda, who attended the match and helped cheer on the team, along with a strong contingent of D.C. area alumni and family.
The Mariners lost both their regular season games at Tomb Field in Kings Point, N.Y. to Drew and Catholic, a 1-0 loss to the former on Oct. 19 and a 2-1 defeat to the latter on Oct. 8. That has made their post-season run all that more remarkable because both wins have come on away from home.
Kessler, the scoring star on Wednesday, continued his heroics on Saturday, giving the Mariners all the scoring they needed at 57:20. Nick Cuellar set up the goal as he switched the ball from the right side to the other to Kessler, who chipped a shot from atop the penalty area over the head of goalkeeper Torsten Meuschke.
"A terrific goal," Smolens said.
Smolens was just happy to be in a position to take the lead as Catholic dominated the first half.
"We didn't get too many chances at goal," Smolens said. "We were pleased at halftime to be tied at 0-0."
The Cardinals had a great opportunity to equalize after a Merchant Marine player was called for a handball in the penalty, but Kevin Romano sent his shot over the crossbar at 87:24.
When shots and crosses came his way, Poulin more than held his own.
"A couple of times Gary came up really big," Smolens said. "Gary was collecting serves under pressure. They weren't diving saves as he did against Drew, but balls played to him under pressure. He had to make sure he held everything. He was really solid."
One of those times can in the second half when he smothered a corner kick with five players – three from Catholic and two from USMMA – "which was great," Smolens said.
"Defensively, we were real solid," he said. "I mean two shutouts against two real good teams."
The Cardinals outshot the Mariners, 26-8, and enjoyed a 9-1 advantage in corner kicks. But the Merchant Marines held on.
"We did a very good job, trying to keep possession, going to the corner," Smolens said. "We were able to put the clock away."
It was the first match all season the Mariners played on real grass. All of their games were played on artificial turf. The last time they performed on a natural surface? Almost a year ago on Nov. 20, 2010, when they reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament when they defeated Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa.
"It was a challenge in the first half," Smolens said. "It took us some time to adjust to it."
But the Mariners did, and now they face yet another challenge -- the NCAA tournament.
"Coach Fitzgerald and I are very pleased and proud with how well the team has responded to the challenges we have faced," Smolens said "It's been a season filled with peaks and valleysand our players have worked very hard to reach a pre-season goal of ours, which was to reach the NCAA tournament. A number of different players have come through for us at different moments and we're looking forward to the challenges which lie ahead."
The Mariners will discover if they will play on artificial turf or grass when the NCAA Division III tournament field is revealed at 1 p.m. on Monday.
Photo: The Mariners celebrate their Landmark Conference championship. Photo courtesy of Catholic University