With the graduation of eight seniors after the 1996 season, many in the New England soccer circle expected 1997 to be a rebuilding year for Amherst men's soccer. The Class of 1997 had led Amherst to two NCAA appearances as half the group, including two All-New England players, had been four-year starters. As the 1997 pre-season arrived, the pressure felt in previous years to go to the NCAA tournament seemed to have disappeared along with the eight seniors.
The return of Peter Gooding to head coaching signaled a shift from a wide open and free style of play to a more structured and disciplined style that stressed high pressure and hard work. During every practice and before every game Coach Gooding challenged the team to out-hustle and out-work the opponent, and we responded to his challenge.
The team's confidence soared as we began the season with a 7-0-1 record with important victories against NESCAC rivals Middlebury and Bowdoin. Our first taste of defeat against Wheaton, followed by a loss to Wesleyan on homecoming, led to a disappointing stretch in which we lost four of our next five games.
Throughout the period, Coach Gooding remained composed and encouraged us to continue battling. Sparked by his unending confidence and inspiration, the team regrouped and began to play like a team on a mission.
As the regular season neared its end, the Williams game arrived with the realization that, to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament we needed to beat Williams for the first time in 15 years and 18 attempts. When all was said and done we found ourselves piled in the middle of the field to celebrate a sudden death overtime victory which thrust us into the tournament.
Our quest for a national championship brought us to the Final Four after four thrilling victories. A first-round meeting with Middlebury went into quadruple overtime after the Panthers tied the match at 2-2 with everyone, including their goalie, pushed into the box with 1:12 left in regulation. The game eventually came down to penalty kicks where a key save by Kevin Larner '99 gave us the win.
Snow kept postponing the regional championship at Bowdoin, but, when the game was finally played three days later, we had a 2-0 win over the hosts on a pair of Matt Diggs '99 goals. We had just one day to prepare for a tough Plymouth State team, and all our hard work paid off in the end. We contained their best players and controlled the offense of the game, outshooting them 20-9 and taking 14 corner kicks. Andy Kay '00 scored his fourth goal of the tournament with just over five minutes to play as we won the team's first New England Championship in three tries.
A 2-0 win over Ithaca College vaulted us into the Final Four, held at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia on Thanksgiving weekend. Andy put us up 1-0 over The College of New Jersey (formerly Trenton State) just before halftime as our defense held off the attack and eight first-half shots. But the defending national champs played the role of our spoiler as they scored two goals in the final seven minutes, blocking our path to the championship game.
Though we ended on a loss, the season was a success. The team united under the guidance of Coach Gooding who taught us to be proud in victory and humble in defeat. The entire team is thankful to be a part of a season in which our quest for a national championship provided us with the memories which will last a lifetime.