Penn and Drexel take aim at NCAA soccer tournament

With their teams headed to the NCAA men's soccer tournament, Drexel coach Doug Hess (left) and Penn coach Rudy Fuller talk about their seasons.    DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer
With their teams headed to the NCAA men's soccer tournament, Drexel coach Doug Hess (left) and Penn coach Rudy Fuller talk about their seasons.    DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer
Posted: November 22, 2013

When Drexel and Penn got together early last month to play soccer, the coaches also got together - after the Quakers came away with a 3-2 victory.

"I don't think either of us believed we'd be here at this point," Drexel coach Doug Hess said.

Here was a Tuesday luncheon at a restaurant on Walnut Street in West Philadelphia, border territory for the two schools, where the coaches celebrated their teams' qualifying for the NCAA men's soccer tournament.

That victory against Drexel had broken a six-game losing streak for the Quakers, who took off and won the Ivy League, clinching an automatic berth.

Coming off a five-game winning streak, Drexel went the other way, losing two more in a row and then tying one before the Dragons got going again.

"I think we looked and played like a desperate team. . . . It was a fascinating game," Penn coach Rudy Fuller said of the Drexel matchup.

"That's what Rudy says because he won," Hess said, sitting with Fuller at lunch. "Me? I was miserable."

Moving on is possible for both teams. Despite its 8-8-1 overall record, Penn put in for a home game and got it: The Quakers will host Providence (12-5-3) on Thursday. Drexel (9-7-4) is at Old Dominion (10-5-1) on Thursday, but that might offer a best-case scenario since ODU had been in Drexel's league until this season and finished behind the Dragons last year.

If they want to dream big, the Cinderella locals obviously realize that next month's NCAA Final Four is at PPL Park in Chester. Nobody at the luncheon was getting ahead of himself.

The two locals have reached the same place from slightly different angles. Penn, which previously had reached the NCAAs three times under Fuller, won only three games in 2012. After beating Drexel this year, the Quakers knocked off defending champion Cornell to begin Ivy play. They were rolling again.

Although there is no Ivy League tournament, the automatic qualifying spot going to the regular-season champion, Penn felt as if it was in a tournament lately. Fuller told his team to approach it that way for the last couple of games, moving past Princeton and then Harvard in the standings by beating both schools in the final two regular-season games.

"It was single-elimination," Fuller said.

Drexel reached the 48-team NCAA tournament last season as an at-large team despite losing in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament after winning the CAA regular season. This year, there would be no such leeway. Hess told his team the regular-season finale at College of Charleston was crucial since the Dragons needed to win it to host the CAA tournament.

A 2-1 win in Charleston was followed by a CAA semifinal thriller against Delaware, with Drexel prevailing in penalty kicks that extended to sudden death, 7-6. Delaware came back from two goals down in regulation. In the final, Drexel beat William and Mary, 1-0. Drama right to the end.

With a familiar opponent in ODU, Hess expected the usual nerves, but not extra nerves, as there could have been last season when Drexel was in the NCAA tournament for the first time.

"It's all brand new; you can fear the unknown," Hess said.

Drexel is a veteran group, with five senior starters, led by the CAA tournament's most outstanding performer, Tal Bublil, a 25-year-old Israel native who served in his country's armed forces before coming to Drexel. Ken Tribbett is a playmaking star, and Nathan Page is the top scorer.

In the postseason, it's often the role players who take the lead. Redshirt freshman Jameson Detweiler scored the game-winner in the CAA final on his first career shot.

For Penn, this Ivy title marks the first outright league championship for the Quakers since 1972. Penn had more goals and gave up fewer than anybody in the Ivy League, so this was no fluke. The Quakers' scoring was distributed among all the classes, with three freshmen accounting for 38 percent of the goals.

Fuller said the leadership was the key to Penn's big turnaround. There is "an aura" about this year's group, the Penn coach said.

"You need good leadership - you need a good locker room," he said.

Drexel's coach cut in.

"Well, our locker room hasn't been redone since 1962," Hess quipped. "We could use a new locker room."


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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