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Column: Don't stop believing

Sports Editor

Published: Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 00:12

Thirteen minutes into the UConn men’s soccer team’s Sweet Sixteen game at No. 1 UCLA, it seemed fair to say that the season as over.

The Bruins scored in the 12th minute and then converted a penalty kick 37 seconds later.

2-0.

Over. Done. See you next year.

At that point, it only seemed to make sense. The NCAA tournament has been a struggle for UConn in recent years. Since winning the national championship in 2000, the Huskies have not been back to the College Cup, soccer’s Final Four, and virtually every season has ended in heartbreak.

There is still a chance that season ends in utter tragedy. But it did not end in the Sweet Sixteen.

A goal from Cyle Larin in the 35th made it 2-1 at halftime, a decent result given the circumstances. Thirteen minutes after halftime, his longtime teammate in Canada and fellow freshman, Kwame Awuah pulled a Nick Zuniga, scoring his first career goal in incredible fashion in a Sweet Sixteen game.

The joy of a 2-2 game was ripped away almost immediately, when UCLA took a 3-2 lead three minutes later. But Larin’s 14th goal of the season leveled matters again with 20 minutes to play.

From that point on, classic postseason UConn: plenty of chances to win it and none of them fell. Overtime was not enough and penalty kicks followed.

Penalty kicks are the worst. If UConn’s run without a trip to the College Cup is like the Curse of the Bambino, penalty kicks are the New York Yankees. We needed to exorcise that demon in order to progress. There was a part of me that didn’t think that was possible 10 days ago.

But what I saw with my own eyes in Baltimore last Sunday, when UConn won its first ever shootout under Ray Reid, made me think that there was a chance, albeit a miniscule one, to win this game, to beat the No. 1 seed, to win a national championship in 2013.

Naturally, they had to make it painful, as Juho Karppinen’s chance just missed, and UCLA held a 2-1 edge through two rounds.

The Huskies kept at it, and they did not miss again. A horrendous miss Leo Stolz, a sure thing for a spot on the All-American team this year, gave UConn its opportunity.

After Alex Sanchez slotted his shot past the keeper, Andre Blake stared down UCLA’s Victor Munoz.

Seconds later, college soccer’s greatest goalkeeper slapped away the Bruins’ national title dreams and the UConn fans in attendance piled onto the field.

Down 2-0 on the road to the No. 1 team in the nation in the NCAA tournament, down in penalty kicks, UConn prevailed and is now back in a familiar spot, the Elite Eight.

It is the Huskies’ third straight trip to the national quarterfinals, and it has to be the charm, right?
There is something about this team.

This is a team that started the season ranked No. 5, a perennial power that once again found itself in the mix for a national title. But injuries and difficulty adjusting to new players in new roles hurt the Huskies early on. With September losses to Bradley and Syracuse, UConn fell out of the national conversation.

But following that loss on Sept. 17 in upstate New York, UConn went unbeaten into the postseason. Even still, the country seemed to forget about Reid’s squad.

Big mistake.

Without a target on their backs, the Huskies have powered through with resilience and a never-say-die attitude.

It kind of brings me back to May and June and the UConn baseball team, the Dead Men Walking.

The curse of penalty kick struggles seems to be over after winning twice in seven days in a shootout. Now, the Huskies turn towards Virginia, the last team standing in their way of a trip to Philadelphia for the College Cup.

And, since there always has to be an “of course” moment, seeing as nothing is ever easy, of course the most recognizable name on the Virginia roster to UConn soccer fans is Jeff Gal, who was Creighton’s goalie last year and had what is arguably the greatest goalkeeping performance I have ever seen in person when the Bluejays knocked UConn out in the Elite Eight last season.

Hopefully, he continues to sit on the bench, but regardless Virginia will be a challenge, as will any team UConn faces from here on out.

But I’m done thinking anything is impossible for this team. This team is special and is rounding into form at the perfect moment.

The latest UConn version of Dead Men Walking is very much alive.

Follow Tim on Twitter @Tim_Fontenault 

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