Given that their roster is almost entirely made up of players from Pennsylvania, it’s fitting that the men’s soccer team at West Chester University doesn’t have to leave the state for the first final four in the program’s Division 2 era.
Still, for most of the players on the team Tuesday’s cross-state bus ride was a longer trip than they take to get home cooking. One key exception to that was grad transfer goalkeeper Will Marshall, who grew up in the area, played in the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Academy and did his undergrad at Pitt.
“We are a very local team,” head coach Michael Benn said. “With the exception of (Will Marshall) I think everyone else is within two hours of campus and most of them are right through Chester, Delaware counties and different areas right near campus. I think it adds to what we’re trying to establish as the culture of our program.”
Benn himself is a Delran, N.J. native but played for and later returned to coach at Lehigh University under WCU grad Dean Koskie before taking the job at West Chester in 2013. When he arrived at West Chester, he was already very familiar with the school’s history, how they made the first three final fours in NCAA history and beat Saint Louis in the final in 1961 a decade before the NCAA was split into divisions.
“I’m certainly aware of the history here without question; I have a big banner up in my office with the dates of the national championships,” Benn said. “Part of my vision when I took this job was to try to get us back to that type of level and establish ourselves on the national level for Division 2. We feel good about where the program is but we certainly want to add to the legacy.”
Benn has been able to realize his vision over the last several seasons, making it into the national tournament three straight years. The first two years they fell victim to the University of Charleston, which made it all the more sweet when they were able to preserve a 1-0 win over the defending national champions a couple weeks ago.
“Beating Charleston was definitely very, very satisfying because that’s been our goal the last two years, finding a way to beat that team,” said senior defender Kyle Hoops. “Being able to do it the third time was the greatest feeling ever.”
Like so many teams at the Division II level, Charleston is loaded with international talent — all but two of the 30-plus players on their roster hail from outside the U.S. Adelphi, which West Chester beat to advance to the final four, wasn’t quite as heavily international but did have seven players from outside the U.S.
That’s also a feature of the other three teams left still standing. West Chester is the only team of the four left without an international player on their roster. Their Thursday opponent, Cal Poly Pomona, has players from Spain, Brazil, Israel and Mexico.
Hoops, who hails from Phoenixville, was familiar with a handful of his West Chester teammates before arriving to campus.
“It made it easy to connect to each other and just living close to each other you get to know their families,” said Hoops, who has also played over the summer for West Chester United with some of his college teammates like right back Sami Phelps and goalkeeper James Wood, who is one of two West Chester natives on the squad along with freshman Kendall Walkes. “I feel like we’re closer because of it.”
The connections so many of the players have to local schools and club teams — reserve midfielder Nick Jachwak is a Philadelphia Union Academy alum while Hoops and several others on the team played for Penn Fusion Academy — gives the team a sense that they are representing more than just the university, but Philly soccer as well.
“We’re trying to do something a lot of people probably think couldn’t be done,” Benn said. “If you look at a lot of Division 2 soccer rosters they’re tremendously international-based. That’s not right or wrong, it’s just what it is. But we’re trying to go about it differently. We certainly feel like we’re carrying the mantle a little bit for local college soccer and Pennsylvania college soccer.”
No team from the region has won a national title in Division II since the NCAA was split up into divisions in 1972. The last and only men’s team from the region to win a Division I or Division II title was West Chester in 1961.
This year’s Golden Rams team is two wins away from doing just that. Thursday’s game kicks off at 2 p.m. at Highmark Stadium in Pittsburgh. The other semifinal between Fort Hays State and Barry kicks off at 11 a.m.