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West Chester University falls short in NCAA Division 2 championship

Two late goals sank the Golden Rams’ title hopes in a 2-1 loss to Barry University in Pittsburgh on Saturday

Senior defender Sami Phelps reacts to West Chester University’s loss in the NCAA Division 2 final at Highmark Stadium in Pittsburgh on December 1, 2018
Matt Ralph

For about an hour on a rainy day at Highmark Stadium in Pittsburgh on Saturday, it looked like West Chester University would hold onto an early 1-0 lead and have a large and shiny souvenir to bring home for their drive back to campus on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Those hopes were dashed with a pair of late goals in a six-minute span that flipped the script on a dream postseason run for the Golden Rams that included knocking off the undefeated defending champs en route to the program’s first trip to a final four in five decades.

“I couldn't be prouder of my guys, they had an unbelievable season; our senior class has helped get this program to a spot where our university and our alumni can be proud of it,” head coach Michael Benn said in a post-game press conference. “It’s always tough to finish a season but I think we can certainly leave with our heads held high.”

Jason Pixley, who scored the game-winner in overtime in the semifinal on Thursday to beat Cal Poly Pomona, opened the scoring when he connected with a Brett Miller corner kick and headed it past Barry University goalkeeper Marco Sordi in the 24th minute.

The Golden Rams were able to hang onto the lead — and survive a couple big scoring chances generated by the Bucs — until the 78th minute when British forward James Kirkham was able to beat Pittsburgh native Will Marshall on a header in the box.

Barry was threatening again five minutes later with another headed attempt that hit the post and as play continued led to a foul just outside the box. British defender Stephen Kosmala, who said in the post-game that he doesn’t usually take set pieces, stepped up and was able to get his kick past West Chester’s wall and tuck it inside the far post.

West Chester drew a few fouls and one last corner kick from Miller in the closing minutes, but unlike in the semifinal on Thursday that ended with Pixley’s golden goal there was only heartbreak for the players and their traveling support that braved the rain in hopes of cheering the Golden Rams on to the school’s first national championship since 1961 and first in the Division 2 era.

“Winning an Atlantic Region championship and beating the defending national champs in Charleston was a big step for us and then getting to the final four and a final,” Benn said. “All credit goes to the players and how they performed. My group of seniors has been a driving force.”

Benn was joined at the press conference by two of his seven seniors (and grad transfer Marshall), Pixley and one of his co-captains, right back Sami Phelps.

“We’ve gotten so close and we’ve been able to put West Chester on the map,” Phelps said. “I love all my teammates.”

The disappointment of losing a final — and having to watch another team celebrate and lift a trophy — has been an all too familiar agonizing scene for teams from Pennsylvania in 2018. Reading United lost the PDL final at home in early August on the same night West Chester United came up short in the National Amateur Cup final in Wisconsin while the Philadelphia Union lost its third U.S. Open Cup final in Houston in late September.

Barry’s national title was the first in program history and as their head coach Steve McGrath put it, exorcised some demons from when the Buccaneers fell in the final in 2000 with some members of that team in the stands. The championship was also the first for McGrath, who still has a ways to go to catch his father, Cliff McGrath, who won five national titles with Seattle Pacific University.

“I’m proud and honored to be in that cathedral now,” he said.