The Valparaiso men’s soccer team secured the outright Horizon League regular season championship Wednesday evening as the Crusaders played to a 1-1 draw with visiting Butler at Brown Field. With the title, Valpo’s first in any team sport since joining the Horizon League, the Crusaders will host the Horizon League Championship semifinals on Nov. 11 and final on Nov. 13 at Brown Field.
“I’m very proud of this group of players; to be able to win a league like the Horizon with still one game to play is a tremendous accomplishment,” said Crusader head coach Mike Avery. “I think, as a coach, the critic in me wishes we had won tonight to clinch. I think we probably did enough over the course of the match to do that, but you have to give Butler credit. They played as I expected they would, with a lot of energy trying to earn their way into the tournament.”
The clinching of the championship came on a night when ten Valparaiso men’s soccer seniors (Stefan Antonijevic, Lior Avisror, Kevin Brown, Clayton Lyons, Adrian Navar, Brendan Roth, Guy Shabtay, Chadd Sult, Wei Ming Wong, Kelvin Zelee) were honored pre-game in Senior Night ceremonies for their contributions to the Crusader program. The group came in when Valpo had earned just one winning season in program history and has led the way as the Crusaders have enjoyed their best three seasons all-time over the last three years. All nine healthy seniors (excepting Navar) were part of the starting XI on Wednesday night.
“I told the guys before the game that I wanted to win the championship with this group, in part because this group has been the one that has turned the tables for the program,” said Avery. “There were a lot of guys before them who set the stage, but this one is the one that took the ball and ran with it. I think its fitting that they're the team that's standing at the end.”
In front of a raucous and amped-up crowd, it would be a pair of those seniors who teamed up for the early go-ahead goal. In the 19th minute, Antonijevic sent a pass from midfield into the offensive half, where Shabtay was able to corral it with a nice first touch. With a defender on his hip, the Israeli took a couple touches before unleashing a hard left-footed strike from just inside 30 yards that drove into the upper-right 90 to put the Crusaders ahead 1-0.
Butler’s equalizer would come in the 75th minute of play. Jared Isenthal sent a free kick from the right flank in the air across the box, where it eluded a number of players before coming down at the feet of Zach Steinberger, who struck it from eight yards out for the tying tally. The goal snapped the Crusaders’ streak of shutouts at five and ended their consecutive minutes played without conceding at just north of 558 minutes.
The Crusaders had a nice effort in the 84th minute off a corner kick, but Antonijevic’s header was wide left and the game went into extra time. Kyle Zobeck made a pair of stops in goal to keep the game knotted up through 100 minutes, while Valpo’s best scoring chance in overtime was an effort on the break by Charles Barden with two minutes to play that hit the outside of the netting. With the seconds counting down, it was fittingly the senior Sult who booted the ball away to secure the draw and assure Valpo of hosting duties.
Valpo out-shot Butler (7-7-3, 2-3-2 Horizon) on Wednesday evening by a 13-8 count, but the Bulldogs put six shots on frame to the Crusaders’ five. Zobeck made five saves in goal, allowing a goal in league play for just the second time in seven games this season, while Butler’s Jon Dawson stopped four shots.
“It was an interesting game,” said Avery. “I think part of it was the fact that Butler brought a lot of energy. That combined with the fact we were playing for the championship on Senior Night in front of the best crowd we've ever had in terms of energy. Our students were fantastic tonight. I think the game was a little bit more wide open than i would have preferred, but we did what we needed to do. Valparaiso is the champions, so we're going to feel pretty good about that.”
Valparaiso (9-5-4, 5-0-2 Horizon) closes out the regular season Saturday with a 1 p.m. match at Green Bay. Live stats will be available through www.valpoathletics.com.