This Article originally ran on Sept. 27, 2007 to honor the 10th Anniversary of the 1997 men's soccer team
by Andrew Chesebro
Until 1997, when people thought of American University men's soccer they thought about Mike Brady and the 1985 team. Now when people think American University men's soccer, the '85 team is joined in memories with the '97 squad and the tight knit cast of characters who defied expectations and rallied our nation's capital around themselves.
This season marks the 20-year anniversary of that team's run to the NCAA Tournament Quarterfinals. During this weekend's men's soccer game, the '97 squad will be honored during a special halftime ceremony.
"The best part of the season was how well the whole team got along. We were all very good friends off the field and we knew that we were a part of something special that season."
- Steve Franzke, captain of the 1997 men's soccer team
"The best part of the season was how well the whole team got along. We were all very good friends off the field and we knew that we were a part of something special that season." - Steve Franzke, captain of the 1997 men's soccer team
The Eagles entered the 1997 season after a 13-4-2 campaign and narrowly missing an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Former Head Coach Bob Jenkins was at the helm for AU and was assisted by current Eagles' Head Coach Todd West.
"Bob Jenkins and Todd West were a perfect fit that year," Franzke said. "The whole team loved playing for them and we did all we could to make sure we gave them our best effort. They both had a great sense of humor that ensured a positive environment on and off the field. I miss all the laughs we had during those practices and on road trips."
The Eagles' season opener came at home against then No. 2 Virginia. "I think the team felt as though we were pretty good, but you never really know until you step onto the field and play in a match situation," Franzke said. "We knew that playing UVA would either set us up for an amazing season or bring us right back down to reality. As it turned out, it was the confidence builder we needed to set the basis for an amazing season."
AU's confidence came from not only playing, but beating the second-ranked team in the country, 3-1. Eric Block, in his first season with American as a graduate transfer, scored a goal and was credited with an assist to propel the Eagles to victory.
After playing UMBC to a 1-1 tie, AU received their first gut check of the season. At the Coca-Cola Classic, the Eagles took a 1-0 lead against No. 1 Florida International into the final minutes of play. With just 51 ticks left on the clock the Golden Panthers netted the tying goal and then the game-winner in overtime.
"I still don't think we lost that game," West said. "The referee called a penalty in overtime and we lost on a fluky goal. It was at that point though that we knew we had the potential to be a special team."
At 1-1-1, the future of the Eagles' season was up in the air. Not wanting to let it be decided by anyone other than themselves, AU turned their play up a notch and in their next 10 games went 7-1-2.
"Our captain, Steve Franzke, was very good at the proverb `one game at a time'," West said. "By keeping that kind of focus our guys showed up everyday ready to work. Each training session was as competitive as a game."
That competitive spirit fueled fiery practice sessions and even incited on and off the field scuffles between teammates and coaches. "Franzke and Trevor Ellis were best friends," West said. "But at practice one day they fought each other after one had tackled the other.
"I even got into an argument with Scott Pearson in the locker room after one game. It was okay for us to do things like that though because we were a family and families have fights. If anyone outside of our family did anything like that though the entire team would face it together. You never had to ask anyone to watch your back."
During its Oct. 4 win against then-No. 12 William & Mary, AU's togetherness and resiliency was proudly displayed. Down 3-0 at the half, AU scored four unanswered goals in the second frame to upset the Tribe and complete the greatest comeback in the program's history.
"Our staff and the staff at William & Mary refer to that game as the surreal game," West said. "In the locker room at halftime we didn't go crazy but we did pull our starting goalie, Jeff Angelucci, to give freshman Mike Gorsegner some experience. The William & Mary players must have thought that we had given up and thrown in the towel. We came out fast in that second half and scored the eventual game-winner with 10 minutes to go and could have possibly scored another two or three."
As the wins mounted, the city of Washington, D.C., became ever more supportive of the team. "It wasn't just the school that was rooting for us," Franzke said, "it felt like part of D.C. was on our side, too."
With the entire city of Washington, D.C., and the metro area on its side, the Eagles continued their torrid pace. They knocked off their second No. 2 ranked team on Oct. 22 when they defeated Maryland, 3-1, thanks to a Pearson hat trick. A 1-0 loss to Philadelphia Textile ended AU's nine-match unbeaten streak but would prove to be only a minor bump in the road, as the Eagles finished the regular season riding a four-game winning streak.
As the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament's No. 1 seed, AU played host to the tournament and met East Carolina in the first round. Not wanting to put doubt in anyone's mind as to just how good they were, the Eagles easily took down the Pirates, 4-0.
In the quarterfinals AU met William & Mary for the second time that season. The Tribe took a 2-0 advantage over the Eagles and seemed as if they would come out of the meeting victorious. But just as they had done in their first meeting, the Eagles refused to say die and battled back, tying the game at two and finally coming away with a 3-2 victory.
In the final, standing between the Eagles and their first CAA tournament title in 12 years was Virginia Commonwealth. Earlier in the season, AU and VCU had battled to a 0-0 overtime draw. The championship match would prove even more exciting than the first meeting as the teams took a 2-2 tie into overtime. In the extra period, neither team managed a score and the game moved to a second overtime where again, neither team was able to capitalize on their offensive opportunities.
With the championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line, the game would be decided by a shootout. Round after round the two teams kicked, scored and saved, but the tie could not be broken. In the 13th round of penalty kicks, the Rams finally broke the tie, stopping AU's final attempt and its championship hopes.
At 15-3-4, AU had built itself a very attractive resume for the NCAA Tournament committee's consideration. "We really could have been 17-1-4 at that point," Coach West said. "If it weren't for a few bad breaks here and there we would have lost only one game."
Making its season even more impressive up to that point was the fact that AU had beaten seven nationally ranked opponents, including twice beating the No. 2 team in the land. The Eagles played three other ranked teams to a tie and took a lead over the then No. 1 team into the last minute of play.
On selection day, American earned a seven seed and home games during the first two rounds of play. The first opponent up for AU was a familiar foe: William & Mary.
"We thought the committee shouldn't have put us in a situation where we had to play another team in our conference in the first round," West said. "Beating a good team three times is always a scary proposition."
Scared might have summed up the feelings of Eagles' fans when the matchup was announced, but thrilling would best be used to describe the game itself.
For the third time that year, AU and William & Mary battled back and forth with neither team giving the other much of an advantage. Trailing 1-0 late in the second half, American's season looked as if it could be nearing an end. However, in the 82nd minute, the Eagles evened the score when junior Deryck Roberts connected with the back of the net on a diving header. Regulation ended in a 1-1 tie and the first overtime period looked as if it would end the same. With a last minute rush the Eagles pressured the Tribe's goal and Pearson found Franzke for the game winner with only 10 seconds left on the clock.
"The entire place erupted," Franzke said. "That is absolutely my most memorable moment at AU."
Maryland awaited American in the second round and the anticipation that accompanies a game between two local rivals fueled the competition. "The Maryland game was the wildest," West said. "It was a big [Atlantic Coast Conference] team against a smaller [Colonial Athletic Association] team that had developed a strong following."
AU's Scott Weber provided the game's only score with just 7:42 to play in the second half, advancing the Eagles to the NCAA Sweet 16 in front of more than 2,000 home fans.
Unfortunately American's season ended the next week in a heartbreaking 2-1 overtime loss to Virginia.
The Eagles garnered many national accolades for their historical season. Pearson was named Second Team All-America by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America and was also a First Team NSCAA All-South Atlantic Region All-American. Antonio Otero joined Pearson on the First Team and Franzke and Avery John were selected as Second Team members. All four Regional All-America selections were named First Team All-CAA and Todd Miller was a Second Team All-CAA selection.
"I don't think anyone expected us to be as good as we were," West said. "We knew we were good and that was all that mattered. Nobody else saw us coming"
Although their season came to an abrupt end, the Eagles took away only fond memories of that magical season.
"I wonder if I will ever be a part of such an amazing journey again," Franzke said. "When you go through a great experience with even better people, the memories only get better as the years go on. And so on this weekend, while our girlfriends and wives are bored of hearing the same stories for the 10th time, we will tell them anyway because they only get better for us and it is what alumni weekend is all about."