In a game that sometimes resembled an advertisement for the men’s soccer team rather than a competitive athletic event, the Lions ran rampant over New Jersey City University on Saturday, Oct. 20th., with a 6-3 victory keeps their faint playoff hopes alive heading into Wednesday’s season finale.
It was only the second time since September 2007 that the Lions (7-10) have scored six or more goals in a game, and they were led by a substitue — substitute midfielder and hat-trick hero, junior Tyler Higgins.
“He put himself in spots where he at least has the opportunity to finish,” head coach George Nazario said. “If you put yourself in good spots and you get an opportunity, at least you can have a chance to score a goal, and that’s what he did today.”
Higgins’ ability to find and exploit space was a game-changer, and also instrumental was the return of injured senior forward Ray Nelan, who he earned his first points since 2010.
“If we had him for the whole season it’d be a different scenario,” Nazario said. “Even though he may not always score goals, every team in the conference knows what he’s capable of doing and that usually creates space for other guys.”
Nelan torched New Jersey City down the right side repeatedly in the first half, sent in his fair share of crosses, and picked up four points overall to help lift the Lions over the high-octane Gothic Knights.
“Ray’s importance to the team couldn’t be overstated,” Higgins said. “A day where he scores a goal and has a couple of assists is just another day in the office for Ray, and we’re all really happy to have him back in the squad.”
New Jersey City’s offense threatened in transition early, and double-digit goal scorer Eduardo Tejada volleyed a bouncing ball past senior goalkeeper Matt Frederick in the 15th minute for the opening tally.
The Lions found ample space on the flanks, though, and punished New Jersey City for lax defending when freshman midfielder Tokio Nakamoto found himself a couple yards clear of the nearest defender in the 30th minute.
“Tokio hit a cross in and Shaw realized it was too deep to shoot for himself. He (headed) it across,” Nelan said. “I got a touch on it and I knew on the second touch or third touch a defender would be on me, so I tried to get rid of it as fast as I could, and luckily I got it away clean.”
After Nelan lashed the ball into the net for his 10th career goal, the Lions camped out in New Jersey City’s half and were rewarded for positive possession play with five consecutive second-half goals.
“Our season was on the line (Saturday), and at halftime we knew we needed to kick it into gear,” Higgins said. “I think our performance displays how badly we want to make it to the postseason, and we took the first step to getting there.”
Higgins gave the Lions their first lead right after intermission, winning a footrace with the lone New Jersey City player that stayed back on a counter attack and sliding a shot under the legs of goalkeeper Kevin Feuntes.
A desperate New Jersey City team started sending defenders forward in search of a life line, but the Lions absorbed pressure and took advantage of the gaps in their opponent’s back line.
“The first one seemed to open the floodgates,” Higgins said. “After I scored for the first time I gained a little bit of confidence and composure in front of goal and it was a bit easier to put the other two away.”
Higgins’ second came in the 52nd minute, when Nelan took the ball to the end line on the left side and deked his marker before passing it to Higgins for a simple tap-in.
Less than 90 seconds later, Shaw slipped in behind the center of the defense and slotted home a through ball from Nelan, and another Shaw score later in the game gave him his team-leading ninth goal of the year to go alone with his three assists.
Not to be outdone, Higgins completed his hat-trick in the 63rd minute when sophomore midfielder Kevin McCartney spotted him 30 yards clear of defenders on the right flank.
McCartney lofted the ball over to Higgins, who dribbled it a few times before sending a curling shot over and around Feuntes from 20 yards out.
New Jersey City picked up a couple of late consolation goals that Frederick will want back, but the end result was a big win that keeps the possibility of playoffs alive — the Lions need to win their regular season finale against Rowan University and William Paterson University to only take a tie from its last two games.
“We’re not exactly where we want to be, but we still have the opportunity to make the NJAC playoffs,” Higgins said. “As long as we take care of our business and get a little help from the conference, we can secure our spot for the postseason.”