PLYMOUTH, N.H. - Just when the followers of Division III soccer in New England thought the programs at Plymouth State College were losing their reputations as perennial national powers, the Panthers have proved the critics wrong.
The 1996 campaigns for both Panther squads were "down" years, by PSC standards, even though both teams captured the Little East Conference title, the women for the seventh straight year and the men for the second time in four years. After all, the men's program has made the NCAA Tournament 13 times in school history, and the women's program nine times since 1986.
But opponents and critics pointed to the 5-8-2 overall record turned in by the men's team in '96, and the 11-7-2 mark by the women that matched the school record for most losses in a season, and there was the notion that PSC soccer had slipped.
Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, the Panthers women, guided by third-year coach Marti Kingsley, are ranked No. 1 in New England and tied for 8th in the nation. The Panther men, under sixth-year head coach Shawn Griffin, go into the final week and a half of their season at No. 2 in New England and No. 15 in Division III, with the regular season finale at home against New England's top ranked team, Wheaton College.
In other words, PSC goes into November with a good chance to be the top-ranked team in New England and host the NCAA Tournament in both men's and women's soccer.
"The difference is a whole year of maturity and development," says Griffin, who led the PSC men to consecutive post-season berths in '93, '94, and '95. "We have some new players who were hurt last year or who transferred, and we have some strong newcomers. We're just a more confident team. It's an old cliché that winning heals all wounds, but it's true. I think back to last year, and the practices and training sessions weren't as intense as this year."
Griffin's squad has won five straight games to improve its unbeaten streak to nine games (8-0-1), and its overall record to 11-2-1. The only three games PSC didn't win were all overtime affairs. Six of the wins were over Little East Conference schools, clinching at least a share of the LEC title, and giving the Panthers a chance at winning their second straight championship by beating Eastern Connecticut this Saturday (Nov. 1) at Panther Field.
Seniors Brett Scaccia (Stratham, NH) and Jeff Boston (Winthrop, ME) returned from injuries that cost them both the entire '96 campaign. Shawn Higgins (Foxboro, MA), Scott Curran (Pawcatuck, CT) and Chris Fall (Nashua, NH) have all contributed after transferring to Plymouth State. Toss in top freshmen Simon Sendowski (Gothenberg, Sweden) and Jeremy Gasowski (Durham, NH) and returning veteran starters Magnus Karlsson (Vasteras, Sweden), Danny Gilbertson (London, England), Milton Medeiros (Santa Cruz, Bolivia), Mark Fiore (Somers, NY), Jesse Elderkin (Concord, NH), Adam Jordan (Amherst, NH), Michael Soares (West Haven, CT) and Jeff DeRosa (Billerica, MA), and Griffin knew before the season that it would be a good autumn.
"This program is very healthy," says Griffin, a player on PSC's NCAA Tournament teams of the mid-‘80s. "We're in very good shape. We're deep, we have numbers, and it's not just numbers, but quality players. Based on our roster, we have the luxury of rebuilding our program without having to mass recruit. We have the players in-house."
Kingsley says the difference on her team is leadership from her two senior captains, Paula Dudley (Windham, NH) and Cece Glover (Hanover, NH).
"They're unselfish leaders," says Kingsley, who led the team to ECAC berths in her first two seasons at PSC. "They understand team dynamics, and they're always the hardest working players on the field, in games and in practice. They're like the coaches inside the team. They don't listen to the complaining from the other players, they're just like ‘shut up and get it done.'"
The Panther women won their first six games of the season before a loss to regionally ranked Keene State. PSC has also won six in a row again this month since its only other defeat, at the hands of nationally ranked Western Connecticut.
The Panthers can also point to a strong group of young players for the backbone of the team's success. Sophomores Jackie Blanchard (Plymouth, MA), Tara Dickson (Vernon, NJ), Erin Pepe (Franklin, MA), Caitlin Cook (Cutchogue, NY) and Melanie Jones (Bradford, NH) are all starters and regular contributors, as are freshmen Carrie Poulin (Westfield, MA), Mary Young (Rockland, MA) and Lisa Goldberg (Newton, MA).
"Last year's freshman class was strong, and now they're sophomores," said Kingsley. "They're out on the field more, and the freshman class speaks for itself."
The Panthers are having the kind of season PSC enjoyed when it made nine straight NCAA appearances from 1986-94.
"We beat the two premier teams in New England, Williams and Bowdoin, on the road," said Kingsley. "We're also proud of our style of play. We're fun to watch, and we're getting more and more talented. We're explosive." And the rest of New England has noticed.
"We're getting the respect," says Kingsley. "It's coaches that vote on these polls. If we didn't have the respect, we wouldn't be No. 1 in New England."
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