Nov. 13, 2011
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For the first time since 2008, the Northern Illinois Huskies men soccer will be playing in the Mid-American Conference Championship, following a 1-0 triumph over Buffalo Nov. 11. NIU will kickoff at 3 p.m. central time and will face Western Michigan, a team that is riding high after defeating defending national champion Akron in penalty kicks, 4-3, following a 1-1 double overtime draw.
A lot has changed in the Northern Illinois soccer program since then. Back then, Head Coach was an assistant coach under former head coach Steve Simmons and seniors Finn Jorr and Francis Otira were young and impressionable freshman on the NIU squad. The Huskies would fall in overtime that season to Akron by a 1-0 score.
To get in the position they are today, the Huskies had to grind out a win over Buffalo and did so with a goal by sure-footed sophomore Gael Rivera in the 63rd minute to lift to the final.
“I assumed the game would’ve been decided with soccer, or on a set piece or just because one team willed themselves to victory and I think when it was all said and done, all three of those things helped us win tonight,” said Luzzi following the match against Buffalo.
When coach Luzzi reflected on the Huskies last appearance in the championship, he said “we had some pretty good leadership on our team, Drew Jeskey was our captain that year and we had a very experience goalkeeper in Joe Zimka and that was a heck of a game – we played Akron very evenly that game. They had Steve Zakuani at that time (now with MLS’ Seattle Sounders) and he made a special play and that was the difference in the game.”
Previewing Sunday’s affair with the Broncos, coach said “we know that this Sunday, just because it’s not Akron, it’s not going to be any easier; especially since Western Michigan won that game in penalty kicks and it’s one of the rare games (at FirstEnergy Stadium) that Akron has lost the last five or six years. So obviously Western is going to be a very difficult opponent, they are going to be on cloud nine, because they just beat Akron and its going to be another battle.”
“They will not be the same team we played in DeKalb. The weather played a big part in that game last time, it was tied 0-0 at halftime and in the second half when we got a 30-mile an hour wind in our favor we scored three goals and that helps. It’s going to be a battle and it should be a great game.”
The Huskies can argue that they have some pretty solid leadership on their squad right now, led by team captain Otira, an All-MAC selection this season at center back. When watching Northern Illinois on the pitch, fans will always hear a voice directing traffic for NIU and that voice is Otira.
The native of London, England recalled Friday’s match and described the team’s approach to the Friday’s contest and for the weekend. “We wanted revenge after falling 2-1 in double overtime (to Buffalo earlier in the season) but we didn’t want that to overshadow the game and the gaffer (Luzzi) told us before the game ‘just make sure you enjoy it.’ And even when it was really scrappy in the last five minutes of the game, all the boys were just really enjoying being in that type of game.”
Otira also reflected on being back in the MAC Championship for the first time since his freshman year.
“The makeup of the team is much different than when I was a freshman obviously, but the same thing applies – you’ve got to really want to win it and everyone has to be on the same page and pulling the same string. The good thing we’ve got with the group is that we’re all pulling on the same strings, and on top of that, going forward, team’s have to be ready for us with the type of the players we have (offensively) – Isaac, Karim, Gael, J-Mo (James Stevenson) – it’s exciting being in the back knowing they can relieve the pressure like that, because they know on the other side (of the pitch) we’ll keep the fort tight.”
The Huskies will attempt to clinch their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2006, when the Huskies defeated Akron x-x in the MAC Championship, the last-time a Mid-American Conference team won at FirstEnergy Stadium. NIU would go on to host a NCAA First Round matchup against Loyola, defeating the Ramblers 1-0, and dropping its second round match to perennial power Indiana, 1-0.