It was shaping up to be quite a memorable time at Lehman last week.
Both the Lightning’s men’s and women’s soccer teams were set to host the semifinals of the City University of New York Athletic Conference postseason tournament. Men’s head coach Toma Gojcevic was named the conference coach of the year. Freshman Ebenezer Otoo was crowned the men’s rookie of the year. And the quartet of Demiraldo Grunasi, Adewale Adewusi, Eduardo Victorio and Mubarak Ouro were each named to the first team of the CUNYAC All-Stars.
The women? All they did was shake off a brutal non-conference season before turning things around in conference play to finish second in CUNYAC standings and earn a home game in the semifinals.
Now all the two teams had to do to cap the week was win and earn a trip to the CUNYAC championship game at Brooklyn College.
But neither team will head to Brooklyn this week as City College knocked off the Lehman women’s team 3-1, right before the men’s team lost 4-3 in penalty kicks to John Jay to close out a forgettable doubleheader at Fordham University last Saturday. The games were moved to Fordham because Lehman’s South Field was under water from last week’s heavy rains.
The fact the Lehman women were playing in the semifinals was something of a surprise considering they opened the season 0-7 and won just four games all season. But all four of those victories came in conference play, where the Lightning finished 4-1. Not a bad rally for a team comprised of 13 freshmen and just one senior.
“I would say our out-of-conference games were probably the hardest we’ve ever played, and I think that probably both hurt us and helped us,” Lehman head coach Casey Melilli said. “But it got us ready for conference play because we only had one loss in the conference and it got us to the semifinals.”
The Beavers jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first half on goals by Cassidy Canberg and Tatiana Zuluaga. But Lehman trimmed its deficit to 2-1 just before intermission when Melanie Huerta found the back of the net for the Lightning.
Canberg added her second goal of the game in the second half for CCNY, however, and Lehman’s run was over.
“I definitely didn’t expect to finish in second place, so I’m pretty proud of them for that,” Melilli said. “But I think now we have a good foundation for this team, and I think we’re on the upswing for the next year or so.”
The men’s contest was more on the chippy side as a total of 32 team fouls were called along with five yellow cards (two for Lehman, three for John Jay) and three red cards (Lehman with two, John Jay with one).
And it was those red cards, that cost the Lightning the services of Victorio and Belvin West, that most infuriated Gojcevic.
“It’s a tough loss, but it was because of mindless red cards from my players,” Gojcevic said. “It’s insane. This is going to be a tough pill to swallow. I seem calm right now, but I’m really angry at the two guys. Eduardo should know better, he’s a three-year captain. The other kid is a new kid, so I’ll have a chat with him.”
Lehman (11-4-1) had taken a 1-0 lead in the first half on a goal by Ouro in the 32nd minute, and it remained that way until John Jay’s Chris Toledo scored with 17 minutes to play to tie the game at 1, with Lehman playing without Victorio and West.
The score remained tied through the rest of regulation and two 10-minute overtime periods before going to penalty kicks, where Lehman’s season — and a hope of a third CUNYAC title in four years — ended.
“We played for 40 minutes with two men down, so I give all the credit to my team,” Gojcevic said. “They worked their (butts) off. I expected a close game. What I didn’t expect was my guys getting two red cards. That was very, very difficult. It’s mindless, it really is. At this stage, for a guy to get a senseless red card, it’s unforgivable. Unforgivable.”
After reflecting for a moment, however, Gojcevic looked ahead to next season and another title run, especially since he’ll have to do it without the services of just two graduating starters — Troy Callahan and Abdel Itito.
“It’s been a great year,” Gojcevic said. “Winning 11 games is not easy. The team has played well all year long. You never want to lose, but the good news is I’m only losing two starters, so the whole team is going to be back.”