Towson thinking soccer NCAAs

Tigers have come long way in 2 years



Two years ago, his team could barely score a goal or win a game, and senior defenseman Mike Dougherty looked back on the aggravation with a smile.

The Towson University men's soccer team obviously learned something from its failures. The Tigers also have added scoring punch since then. Throw in a defense that has matured into a pretty airtight unit and you have the ingredients for a bona fide turnaround.

Not even a 4-3 loss at Hofstra and a 1-1 tie at Northeastern last weekend can dent Towson's confidence these days. Not after the Tigers reeled off eight consecutive victories before that, including five straight shutouts, and cracked the NCAA Top 25 poll for the first time in nearly four years.

These 8-2-1 Tigers are a far cry from the team that, in 2003, went 1-12-4 and managed just seven goals in 17 games. This group sees itself as a legitimate threat to win the Colonial Athletic Association conference and do some damage in the NCAA tournament.

"Being down there and working our way up, we knew it wasn't going to be easy," said Dougherty, a four-year starter and one of the leaders on last year's team that improved to 8-7-2. "We've been through the low times and now the high times. We've put in our time."

Frank Olszewski, Towson's 24-year coach who has produced nine winning seasons in his previous 10 years, sees balance and experience as the main reasons the Tigers are positioning themselves to make the NCAAs for the first time since 2001.

With the additions of junior forward Sebastian Haensel, sophomore midfielder Pat Healey (Calvert Hall) and sophomore forward Angus Burke, the Tigers are a constant threat to score, especially out of their much-improved transition game.

Haensel, Healey and Burke have combined to score 41 of the team's 64 points. Haensel (team-high 16 points) and Healey (14 points) have combined to score five game-winning goals.

But the Tigers have set the tone with defense, starting with senior goalkeeper Zak Thompson, who ranks second in the CAA with a save percentage of .866 and 5.27 saves per game. In front of Thompson are Dougherty and a trio of three-year starters in senior Kyle Coleman and juniors Nigel Marples and Andrew Marshall (Centennial).

"You hope a year's experience is an investment in the bank. This is a hard-working, intelligent group. They've had to learn the ins and outs of defending some of the better forwards in the country in our league," Olszewski said.

"When there is a letdown, Zak is there. He's not just making saves; he's made some that have practically been in, where opponents are already celebrating before he knocks [the ball] out of there."

"If we take a chance to go forward [and try starting a fast break], it's good to know Zak is organizing and keeping us together back there if a breakdown happens," added Dougherty. "We've learned each other's weaknesses and strengths. We've developed a sense for each other."

Healey pointed to Towson's 1-0 overtime victory on Sept. 30 over James Madison, a perennial CAA power, as defining proof of the Tigers' growth. A year ago, JMU hung a 5-1 rout on Towson.

"We couldn't score. We had a lot of chances, they had a penalty kick. We hit the pole a couple of times [with shots]. Nothing went right," Healey said.

"Then, we got a goal [by Haensel, with Healey assisting]. That's when everybody's head turned and we thought, we can do something. It showed everybody we're in this. We're going to be a team playing in the postseason."

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