Written by Student Assistant Jake Bilyeu
TACOMA, Wash. – The Pacific Lutheran University men's soccer team pushed its way into a tie atop the Northwest Conference standings on Saturday afternoon, defeating Willamette University 2-1 to extend the Lutes' unbeaten run to eight games (7-0-1).
Both sides played an a nearly-evenly matched first half, with the Lutes (10-4-3, 8-2-2 NWC) narrowly edging the Bearcats (9-5-2, 8-2-2 NWC) in shot output, 8-6. With a scoreless first half looming, Bennett Bugbee struck for the Lutes with an unassisted goal in the 43rd minute.
The majority of the second half played out similarly to the first, with PLU once again holding the slight edge. However, the first place Bearcats persisted, and eventually found a way to even the game with a score from Carter McCleary at the 81-minute mark. The game didn't remain even for long, though, as Eddie Na scored just 38 seconds later off of a pass from Oni Mayer, doubling his lead over the rest of the conference with his 14th goal of the season.
With just over eight minutes left to fire back, the Bearcats didn't get off another shot, and the Lutes held on to secure a tie atop the NWC with Willamette after closing out the 2-1 victory.
"It is very difficult to play against Willamette, they're a good, strong team, that brings a lot of pressure," Head Coach John Yorke said. "For us to hold them off and find two goals, it's a very good performance by our team."
The Lutes and Bearcats find themselves even in the first two tiebreakers. They split their head-to-head matchups, with each team winning by one goal in their victory. However, the Lutes hold a better record over the current 3rd place team, Whitworth University (the Lutes hold a 1-0-1 record against the Pirates this season, while the Bearcats are 1-1).
If the Lutes win their two remaining games, and Whitworth remains in 3rd place in the NWC, then the Lutes will win the NWC championship regardless of how the Bearcats finish the season. This adds extra pressure to the Lutes' final two contests, but the team knew that already, and Yorke is certain that his players will stay focused for the remainder of the year.
"They just need to remember to enjoy the game and finish strong," Yorke said. "It's easier said than done, but we'd rather be where we are now than where we were a month ago."
Among the many players responsible for maintaining the Lutes' edge in their final two games is goalie RJ Noll. Noll has performed admirably in his role as the backbone of the Lute defense. He leads the conference in saves, and holds second place in save percentage in the conference. For Noll and the rest of the Lute defenders, camaraderie serves as the key to finishing on top come season's end.
"We all need to look each other in the eye, and know that we're going to win for each other, for the team," Noll said. "We've been doing a lot of hard work, and that's made us all closer, which has driven to our success this season."
The Lutes will continue working hard on Sunday, as they host Linfield College for their final home game of the season, starting at 2:30 p.m.