RIO GRANDE, Ohio – The University of Rio Grande men’s soccer team opened its home schedule with a visit from Aquinas (Mich.) College.
Oddly enough, the RedStorm will close its home schedule by playing host to the Saints yet again – only there will be much more riding on the upcoming meeting than there was in the September get-together between the two teams.
The rematch comes in the 2012 NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship Opening Round on Saturday, at 6:30 p.m., at Evan E. Davis Field.
Rio Grande, ranked second in the final coaches poll and seeded No. 4 in the national tourney, brings a 15-2-1 record into the match following a 2-1 loss in double overtime to top-ranked and defending national champion Lindsey Wilson in the finals of the Mid-South Conference Tournament last Thursday.
The loss snapped a 16-game unbeaten streak for head coach Scott Morrissey’s squad, which won the MSC regular season crown.
The Blue Raiders, who had a 38-game winning streak stopped in an overtime loss at Rio Grande in the regular season, tied the match with just 12 seconds left in regulation and netted the game-winner just over 3-1/2 minutes into the second extra session.
“It was a tough one to lose,” said Morrissey, whose team is one of eight at-large selections in the national tourney field. “We made a couple of mistakes at the end of regulation that really cost us.”
Aquinas sports an overall mark of 13-5-3 and qualified for the national tourney by virtue of winning the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference tournament title. Head coach Joe Veal’s club tied Cornerstone (Mich.), 2-2, in the championship match, but advanced with a 5-4 shootout victory.
The Saints also reached the WHAC tournament championship with a 5-4 shootout win over the University of Northwestern Ohio.
Among the five losses for Aquinas was a 3-1 setback at the hands of the RedStorm back on September 1.
“I’m sure they’re excited to play us again – this is the national tournament,” Morrissey said of the Saints, who are making just their second national tournament appearance and their first since an opening round loss in 2000. “They have a very good team, but I’d like to think that we’re a little better now than we were the first time we played them.”
Rio Grande played without the services of three of its starters – including senior forward Richard Isberner and senior midfielder Oliver Hewitt-Fisher – in the first meeting.
Isberner went on to lead the RedStorm in scoring (21 goals, 11 assists, 53 points) and earned his second straight Mid-South Conference Player of the Year award. He ranks in the national top 10 in seven different offensive categories and is 14th in the country in assists.
Hewitt-Fisher ranked right behind Isberner in all three categories (11 goals, 10 assists, 32 points) for Rio.
The RedStorm, which is making its 12th national tourney appearance, also has three other players with double-digit scoring totals in junior midfielder Maxi Viera (10 goals, 5 assists, 25 points), sophomore midfielder Caio Cruz (9 goals, 6 assists, 24 points) and senior forward/midfielder Rafael Maccauro (4 goals, 6 assists, 14 points).
Rio also features senior Jack Marchant in goal. He ranks seventh in the country in goals against per game (0.74), allowing just 12 scores all season.
Marchant has a 13-2-1 record in net, with 36 saves and a .750 save percentage.
Aquinas has a scoring machine of its own in junior midfielder Tyler Fischer, who has 26 goals and five assists for 57 points. He ranks third in the country in goals, is fifth in points, is second in game-winning goals and leads the NAIA in shots per game.
Fischer accounted for his team’s only goal in the regular season meeting.
Senior forward Casey Higgason has 13 goals and 12 assists (38 points) to his credit for the Saints, while junior midfielder Michael Gagnon (3 goals, 6 assists, 12 points) and senior midfielder Heath Somers (4 goals, 4 assists, 12 points) are the other double-digit scorers on the team.
Higgason is 10th in the country in assists.
Sophomore goal keeper Mike Sweers ranks 18th in the NAIA with a 0.93 goals against per game average. He has a 12-4-2 record with 16 goals allowed, 64 saves and a .800 save percentage.
Saturday’s winner advances to the round of 16 to face either No. 13 seed Missouri Valley or Hannibal-LaGrange on Monday, at noon EST, at the Emory Folmar YMCA Soccer Complex in Montgomery, Ala.