For the second season in a row, the Lehman Lightning were poised to make a little history.
No team from the City University of New York Athletic Conference had ever tasted victory in an NCAA Division III tournament game.
But here was the Lehman men’s soccer team, one step away from fulfilling a promise it made this time last year when the Lightning saw its 2016 season end in a first-round tournament game.
“That was our goal all along,” Lehman coach Toma Gojcevic said. “Win the CUNY again and then win that first NCAA game.”
But a brilliant season for the Lightning again ended without history being made as Lycoming College spoiled Lehman’s dream with a 2-0 victory last Saturday in an NCAA Tournament first-round game.
Now it is “wait until next year” again for the Lightning.
“It was a good game. We played hard, especially in the first half,” Gojcevic said. “We had some opportunities, but we just didn’t come through.”
Lehman (13-5-1) had found out early last week that it would be travelling to Williamsport, Pennsylvania to take on a Lycoming team that had posted an 18-2 record on the season. And from the moment the Lightning’s opponent was revealed, Lehman shifted its focus from celebrating its back-to-back CUNYAC titles to earning the conference’s first tournament win.
But a pair of Lehman miscues — one in each half — led to the Lightning’s downfall as Lycoming capitalized on each mistake with a goal.
“This game is going to sit with me and the guys because it really was a 50-50 game, and it really could have gone either way,” Gojcevic said. “But coming into the NCAA Tournament, what is going to kill you are mistakes, and we made two big mistakes and they scored.”
Salh Alzubidi, who led both Lehman and the conference in scoring this season with18 goals, could never quite get on track as Lycoming made it difficult for his teammates to get him the ball with any regularity.
“We came out in the first half and we were attacking and we had a couple of shots on goal, but I wasn’t getting enough balls,” Alzubidi said. “But then in the second half, coach told us to attack more, but we seemed to sit back the whole time.”
Gojcevic thought playing on the big stage for the first time might have altered the games of some of his young stars.
“You could see with Salh and Eduardo (Victorio), you could tell it was their first really, really big game,” Gojcevic said. “It was a game where there was in-your-face-tackling and it was aggressive, and maybe the atmosphere got the best of them. But what I take out of this game is how far we are as a team, and how far we’ve come.”
After falling behind 1-0 on a first-half goal by Lycoming’s Kyle Settenbauer, the Lightning’s hole got a little deeper in the 61st minute when Sainclair Tueno netted a goal for a 2-0 Lycoming lead.
Lehman’s best scoring opportunity came later in the half on a free kick by Alzubidi. But his shot on goal was saved by Lycoming goalkeeper Chris Solecki, and the Lightning never really threatened again in a second half that saw the Warriors outshoot Lehman 14-3.
The loss made for a long, quiet, three-and-a-half-hour bus ride home to the Bronx for the Lightning, but it also gave them time to reflect on what they did manage to accomplish this season — a memorable year that included an unbeaten and unscored upon conference regular season, and a promise of more successes in the future for a team that returns many of its key personnel for next season.
“There’s not much to harp on,” Gojcevic said. “We had a great season, and today the boys did their best and today their best just wasn’t good enough.
Alzubidi, who was not part of the Lightning’s tournament team last year, said he enjoyed his first taste of NCAA tournament play and looks for a return engagement next season.
“Everybody did their best. It just wasn’t our day,” Alzubidi said. “But I don’t need any time to appreciate what we did this year. I appreciate it at this moment. We did a great job throughout the season, we worked hard, and it was a fun season.
“Now I’m going to work doubly as hard as I did this season next year. That’s my goal.”