Huskies Lose OT Heartbreaker in MAC Title Match

GO HUSKIES The championship match was played is snowy conditions, with snow covering the entire field at one point.
The championship match was played is snowy conditions, with snow covering the entire field at one point.

Nov. 16, 2008

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AKRON, Ohio - The Northern Illinois men's soccer team fought through freezing temperatures, snow, and wind for 105 minutes, but ultimately fell one goal short of the Mid-American Conference Championship, falling to top-seeded Akron, 1-0, in double-overtime, Sunday.

"The disappointing thing is in the way we lost the game," NIU head coach Steve Simmons said. "It was kind of an open goal deal, and I don't think or guys deserved to lose it that way. But the game is cruel."

Akron's Steve Zakuani, the 2008 MAC Player of the Year, scored at 104:52, halfway through the second of two golden goal overtimes. Zakuani received a lofted pass from Matt Tutich, and was met by NIU goalkeeper Joe Zimka (Algonquin, Ill./Jacobs). The sophomore forward slipped Zimka, and placed the ball into a defenseless net to end the match.

Though the Huskies (11-6-4, 4-1-1 MAC) fell to the fourth-ranked Zips (16-1-4, 6-0-0 MAC), Simmons said his team was unparalleled in effort.

"Our attitude, spirit, and work rate was just superb," he said. "We had chances to really win the thing because of it."

The MAC Championship game, which decides which team receives the conference's automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament, was fought in abhorrent conditions. Snow fell for much of the match, and covered the field at half time. Temperatures hovered in the low 30's but a 10-20 mile per hour wind made it feel more like 20 on the field.

"It was our kind of weather, the weather we train in at six in the morning sometimes," Simmons said. "We felt it was something that pointed in our direction, but unfortunately we weren't able to capitalize like we wanted to."

Despite the difficult conditions, Northern Illinois had several opportunities to score. The best came in the 65th minute, when Ben Thomas (Fairfield, Ohio/Fairfield) broke through a line of defenders to find Akron keeper Evan Bush off his line. Thomas tapped the ball into the net, but the referee called a handball on NIU just before the score, negating the play.

"Ben did a great job pressuring the ball, and the ball came up and the referee said it touched his hand," Simmons said.

Officially, the Huskies took only five shots in the game, but NIU played the ball into dangerous areas many more times. Thomas led the team with two shots, while Steve Kolzow (Aurora, Ill./Waubonsie Valley), Danny Lopez (Buffalo Grove, Ill./Stevenson), and Brad Horton (Sycamore, Ill./Sycamore) were each credited with one. Akron earned seven corner kicks to Northern Illinois' two, but none resulted in goals.

Zimka was named to the MAC All-Tournament team for his efforts, which included six saves in the championship match. He allowed only one goal over three matches and nearly 300 minutes between the pipes.

"It was a very good performance by him and everyone in front of him," Simmons said. "The weather made it difficult to keep your footing, because it was slick."

The Huskie backline was further honored as Kolzow, a senior, was named to the all-tournament squad for his play at outside back. Fellow senior Drew Jeskey (St. Charles, Ill./St. Charles East) earned a place on the team as a defensive midfielder.

"I can't understate what outstanding effort and heart our seniors played with today," Simmons said. "This isn't the way we wanted them to go out, but they fought valiantly."

The Northern Illinois men's soccer team will find out if its fourth 10-win season in five years is enough to earn an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, Monday. The announcement of the 48-team field will be made on ESPNews between 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. (CST).



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