The Gannon University men’s soccer team stole the No. 2 spot in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference playoffs from Millersville Saturday in a dominating 4-2 road victory at Pucilo Field.
The victory enabled the Knights to move directly to semifinal play at West Chester on Friday against Millersville, which defeated Seton Hill, 3-0, in a quarterfinal match Tuesday night.
In Gannon’s regular-season finale Saturday against Millersville, the Knights were quick to strike first, as just barely into the third minute of play, Eduardo de Bonis Encinoso juked a Millersville defender, giving him a one-on-one chance with the goalie.
Encinoso ended the impressive play with 1-0 on the scoreboard.
Six minutes in, Encinoso still wasn’t taking his foot off the pedal as teammate Baran Kilic threaded a pass through the Millersville defense for a second goal.
Despite the 2-0 deficit, Millersville wasn’t giving up easily. Striker Marcus Frangakis lined a tight shot into the Gannon net, cutting the lead in half at 15 minutes.
Barely under 25 minutes of play, Encinoso landed a hat-trick goal on a long-range shot to give the Knights a 3-1 lead going into intermission.
Encinoso’s hat trick was the first for the Knights since Mathias Krigbaum found three goals on Sept. 24, 2016, in a 5-2 win over Millersville.
Encinoso’s first-half outburst tied him with Krigbaum for the team lead in goals with seven — until 6 minutes into the second half. Krigbaum reclaimed the season lead, sprinting through center field, intercepting the ball and firing into the Millersville net.
The 4-1 lead held up until the final minutes when Millersville cut the deficit to 4-2. The Knights’ defense remained resilient, despite being outshot 19-10 and 6-4 on goal.
Gannon goalie Jorge Hernandez finished with four saves and a season record of 9-5-1.
The Knights’ four goals stand as a season-high and the most goals since Krigbaum’s previously mentioned hat-trick match.
Gannon will be playing Friday for a berth in Friday’s conference finals at 1:30 p.m. at West Chester. Sunday’s final is scheduled for 1 p.m.
Krigbaum, a sophomore from Denmark, led the Knights in assists as a freshman and found his scoring touch this season.
Krigbaum talked about the slow start that the Knights experienced, as they lost their first four games. “Expectations were very high,” he said, and the losses temporarily took the wind out of the Gannon sails.
Gannon coach Dale White said he was undeterred by these losses, emphasizing that he had a quality team and even though results didn’t go their way, that didn’t take away from his players’ raw skill.
After the Knights turned things around, they went on an eight-game win streak, during which Krigbaum “couldn’t imagine the team losing.”
The team morale was high, and its confidence was growing exponentially, Hernandez said.
In looking at his team’s ability to rebound from an 0-4 start and finish the regular season 11-6-1, White recalled a British phrase: “The cream always rises to the top.” He said the team’s resilience showed its true character.
Hernandez and Krigbaum had opposing views when it came to pinpointing the Knights’ greatest strength.
As an offensive player, Krigbaum credited the defense “100 percent,” while Hernandez claimed that the team has “the best offensive play in the league.”
Krigbaum disagreed, noting, “We haven’t scored as many goals as we were supposed to.”
The Knights certainly believe in their teammates, yet also hold themselves to high standards.
The Spanish-born Hernandez, who has been playing soccer since he was 5, posted 13 career shutouts for Gannon, five of which came this season.
When asked if he planned to continue his soccer career after graduating this year, he responded, “Never say never, but I am ready for the next chapter in my life.”
When White was asked what his team could do better, he quipped, “Singing.” After each victory, the Knights join in a poorly sung chorus of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
White surely wouldn’t mind a bit more off-key victory music this season — starting with Friday’s match against Millersville.