With 18 minutes left to play in the final regular season match of the year, senior Yoni Berhanu lined up for one of the most significant free kicks of his collegiate career.
Berhanu and the Colonials found themselves in a deadlocked game Sunday against a Duquesne team fighting for one of six spots in the A-10 tournament. Although GW secured a berth in the tournament Friday with a 3-0 win over St. Bonaventure, the Colonials, who were without their high-scoring junior forward Seth Rudolph due to injury, were still determined to emerge victorious.
Hanging in the balance was retiring head coach George Lidster’s 200th career victory with the Colonials, a chance for a bye week in the A-10 tournament but most important of all: the title of regular season conference co-champions.
Berhanu lined up 25 yards from the goal, approached the ball and proceeded to spin it into the upper right corner of the goal, leaving the opposing keeper no opportunity to make a save. As the ball fell into the back of the net, the Colonials erupted in celebration, mobbing Berhanu as he ran to center field to enjoy what Lidster dubbed a “world class” goal.
“I tried the same thing on Friday, but the [St. Bonaventure] keeper made a great save,” Berhanu said. “This time, I tried to start it a little bit outside the post and have it swing in. [Duquesne’s keeper] was a little bit further on the other side of the goal, and he didn’t really see it, so I knew it was already in by then, because he was just watching it go past.”
The goal propelled GW to a 1-0 lead, and the team held on to clinch its first regular season championship since 1992, far from the prediction of preseason polls, which placed them next to last in the conference. Lidster, who announced his retirement at the beginning of the season, was honored before the match as the most winning coach in school history over his 24 years at the helm of the men’s soccer team. The match was also senior day, honoring players Mike Burke, Brice Carr, Jake Davis and Berhanu in their last home game for GW. Lidster was quick to shift attention away from himself when asked about his retirement and reaching a milestone in wins.
“I haven’t walked away from it yet,” Lidster said. “I’m not even thinking about that. I’m thinking about the next game.”
The Colonials got the weekend action off to a fast start Friday with a goal against St. Bonaventure in the first 15 minutes of play. A penalty was called on the Bonnies’ keeper as Rudolph played a pass from midfield into the box where he was slide tackled, setting up a penalty kick. Berhanu converted his fifth penalty attempt of the season for his eighth goal, but was not finished for the day. In the 35th minute, sophomore Tyler Ranalli scored his first goal of the season on a pass from junior Mattia Melillo to give GW a 2-0 edge heading into halftime. Berhanu scored again in the 74th minute, rebounding his own deflected shot on a penalty kick, blasting it past the keeper on his second-chance attempt. Berhanu finished with six shots on goal, as the Colonials placed a total of nine shots on target compared to the Bonnies’ one.
While the Colonials had the game well in hand, their chances of winning the A-10 tournament took a dramatic turn for the worst, when a collision in the opposing goal box left Rudolph reeling in pain with 22 minutes to play. Rudolph had to be helped off the field by teammates, appearing to injure his right leg. Rudolph, who has eight goals on the season, formed one of the top scoring duos in the A-10 with Berhanu, and Lidster later explained that Rudolph’s status is “day-by-day.”
“Hopefully it’s not the worst,” Lidster said. “We’re fearing an ACL or MCL [injury].”
While Friday’s match was competitive, Sunday’s contest ramped emotions even higher. With both teams vying for position in the A-10 tournament seeding, the match took an intensely physical nature. Thirty-three fouls were called, and three yellow cards were given out over the duration of play. When Berhanu was taken down by a hard challenge in the first 20 minutes of play, the GW bench erupted in outrage, throwing up their hands for a yellow card to be awarded. Twice in the first half, Duquesne’s keeper had to be restrained by teammates. As the first half progressed, call after call seemed to be displeasing the Colonials’ coaching staff, as Lidster could be seen imploring the referees to do a better job from the sidelines. Lidster later declined to comment about the officiating.
The Colonials’ offense struggled in the first half without Rudolph. GW appeared stifled by the Dukes’ defense, posting only three shots in the first half. But the Colonials’ defense responded in kind, refusing to allow Duquesne a single shot on goal.
“They were attacking us,” Berhanu said. “Duquesne has great players, and that’s a testament to our defense. Our defense doesn’t give up goals this year. When you don’t give up goals, you always have a chance to win.”
When Melillo was taken down in the 72nd minute and awarded a free kick, Berhanu netted the game’s only goal. The defense resisted the Dukes’ best efforts to score, and GW held on to win. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, fans rushed onto the field to celebrate the program’s first regular season championship in 19 years. The Colonials (9-6-2) finished conference play with seven wins and two losses, and were undefeated in five home matches. Anchored by a constantly changing defensive backline due to injury, the Colonials did not give up a single conference goal at home.
“We’ve never even been close to this in my four years,” Burke said. “Last year we were 3-15. We were picked to finish 13th this year. This is the best day I’ve been here. It feels great, but we’ve got two more games left.”
Lidster and his team were ecstatic after the win.
“It means a lot for the team,” Lidster said. “We started off the season taking one game at a time. Early on in the season, we didn’t quite have our intensity. We improved during the season, had a lot of injuries, but people have stepped in. Even this weekend, [Rudolph] went down on Friday. Big shoes to fill, but somebody filled them. It’s been a fantastic season.”
With the Colonials gearing up for the A-10 conference tournament, GW sits as the No. 2 seed and has earned a first round bye.
“We want a championship,” Berhanu emphasized. “A tournament is never guaranteed, but we put ourselves in a great position with a bye week. We will definitely be able to look back on this no matter what happens and be happy with a regular season championship, but why stop here? We want an A-10 tournament title too.”