It has been an incredible 10 days for the Westmont men’s soccer team. Ten days that started with a firestorm that tore through parts of campus, causing the closure of school and the destruction of head coach Dave Wolf’s house.
While most students returned home until school re-opens on Dec. 1, the team stayed and finished off a miraculous GSAC championship by beating top-20 teams three-straight times capped by a 2-0 victory over Azusa Pacific in the title game, just four days after the fire.
The 10 days ended Saturday night at Harder Stadium, where an estimated crowd of 2,000 erupted in jubilation when Andrew Schneider’s golden goal gave Westmont a 3-2 double-overtime victory over Holy Names in the first round of the NAIA Tournament.
“It’s amazing. I’ve never seen so much support, people rallied behind us. We could hear them the entire time and that’s really what kept me going a lot of times,” forward Anthony Niboli said after the game in between handshakes and hugs from the hundreds that stormed the field.
The midfielder earned every last one of them, having scored Westmont’s second goal on a penalty kick and getting assists on the Warriors’ other two.
“I was running on hopes and dreams,” he said.
In the 105th minute, Niboli got behind the defense and was able to chest a long ball to his feet in stride before blasting a shot off the right goal post. Holy Names keeper Mads Aastrup made a play on Niboli’s shot and watched helplessly as the shot bounced across the goal straight to Schneider, who easily knocked it in for the automatic win.
The second round of the tournament isn’t until Dec. 2, when the Warriors (11-6-2) will face Baker (14-6-2), a school from Kansas, at the host site, Fresno Pacific University. Holy Names, champions of the California Pacific Conference, finishes its season at 14-5.
“The week’s just been crazy. It really feels like our world has been turned upside-down,” said Schneider. ”All of our committments have been taken away except for soccer, so it’s at least given us something to focus on.”
Judging by the crowd, the players aren’t the only ones focusing on their improbable run in the face of adversity.
“It definitely has become a Westmont commmunity team right now,” said Wolf, noting the release soccer has served the past week. ”It’s a much broader identity than just men’s soccer. That’s been evident in the way the team has been received.”
The Warriors outshot Holy Names 22-11 — most coming after Holy Names’ Victor Augustsson was sent off with a red card in the 66th minute — but were repeatedly repelled by the fantastic play of Aastrup, who had seven saves.
Westmont’s Harrison Hill was first to break through, putting the Warriors up 1-0 just after halftime. Holy Names’ Milan Partenijevic equalized soon after. Niboli’s PK, which came after midfielder Jon Schoff was taken down in the box, came in the 69th minute and Holy Names came right back again. Mustafa Celik’s 25-yard rocket was untouchable, rising fast and steady into the upper-left hand corner of the net.
But playing a man down started to wear down Holy Names, who used only one substitution to Westmont’s five. Schneider’s game-winner was the culmination of the Warriors’ constant pressure and determination that the Hawks had fought off until that point.
“Fortunately we got enough chances that we put them away,” said Schoff, who said the Warriors have been doing a better job of netting goals than earlier in the season.
”We’re on a roll and we gotta keep with it.”