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Bengals blank New Paltz, seal spot in SUNYAC playoffs

Unlike goals and clean sheets, a team's belief is impossible to quantify, but this year's Buffalo State men's soccer program has the trait in abundance.

With a 2-0 win over New Paltz on Friday afternoon at Coyer Field, the Bengals (10-5-2 overall, 4-3-1 conference) clinched their second SUNYAC playoff berth in three years after missing the postseason the previous six campaigns.

"There's an excitement about [this program]," said Buffalo State's third-year head coach, Mark Howlett. "I think the guys have a belief and they enjoy being the underdog, but I think we've got the right players. I think there's a culture of success, a culture of love and a culture of commitment, and I think that was maybe not there before."

[Read: Stirring feature on Howlett and Pavone's connection before Buffalo State]

After losing two straight in double-overtime, Buffalo State needed one win from its remaining two matches, with the better opportunity coming Friday against the Hawks, who were one point inferior in the standings.

With the victory, the Bengals have assured themselves a spot in the tournament, but their seeding could vary significantly. There's still a slim chance that Buffalo State could host a postseason game, but a win over Oneonta would have to be coupled with a few other favorable results.

Below are the matchups for the final SUNYAC games, as well as the conference table. Note that the first tiebreaker is head-to-head results during the regular season.

*Oneonta at Buffalo State
*Plattsburgh at Brockport
*Oswego at Cortland
*Potsdam at Geneseo

The SUNYAC men's soccer table with one conference game remaining for all teams.

The SUNYAC men's soccer table with one conference game remaining for all teams.

The Goals: Buffalo State's biggest scoring threats, midfielders Luke Pavone and Bass Sarr, were held off the score sheet, so the production had to come from unusual sources.

Freshman left back Robert Williamson, in the starting lineup for injured senior Barry Hunt, scored his first career goal on a header off a corner kick to give the Bengals the lead with under five minutes to go in the first half.

"It was a great ball in by Sammy [Wasson]," Williamson said after the match. "I saw it go over the keeper's head, and it just came down to me, and luckily I was in the right spot to put it in."

It wasn't the smoothest goal Williamson will score in his life -- the ball caromed off the crossbar and spun over the goal line as a Hawks defender lunged toward it at the near post -- but it could prove to be the most important.

Buffalo State's main scoring threat, Luke Pavone, was held without a goal on Friday, but his teammates stepped up. (Photo: Dave DeLuca)

Buffalo State's main scoring threat, Luke Pavone (right), was held without a goal on Friday, but his teammates stepped up. (Photo: Dave DeLuca)

"It's unbelievable," Howlett said of Williamson's impact as a starter. "We have a group where, even though we don't really play a lot of players during the games, it's not because we don't have depth, it's just a personal preference of mine to keep things steady.

"We have guys who are going to make names for themselves, and for Robert, it's just been a half a season earlier; I didn't expect him to be doing what he's doing until next year."

The Bengals' insurance goal arrived on the other side of halftime, as New Paltz's Tucker Stern -- faced with pressure on his back from a charging Pavone -- accidentally headed the ball past his own keeper, John Guzzo, who'd strayed from his line to challenge the ball.

Xs and Os: Howlett, who regularly implores his forwards to pressure opposing defenders (akin to forechecking in hockey), was pleased that the high pressure paid off in a crucial situation.

"It comes back to the way I used to go about things [as a player]," Howlett said. "The more pressure you put on somebody at this level, the chances are going to be there because guys aren't as comfortable every time to put their foot on it and keep possession."

Freshman August Finn and junior Lorne Maxime were given the unenviable duty of relentlessly chasing the Hawks' backs as they moved the ball around their own third, while advanced midfielders Sarr and Pavone did their share of pressing high, too.

Buffalo State freshman forward August Finn worked tirelessly to pester New Paltz's defenders. (Buffalo State Athletics)

Buffalo State freshman forward August Finn worked tirelessly to pester New Paltz's defenders. (Buffalo State Athletics)

"I expect a lot out of those guys because I feel like we defend from the front, we win balls higher up the field and you've got a larger percentage to then score goals," Howlett explained. "Instead of sitting back, I expect those guys to lead us, and when they make a good tackle and win the ball back, it just flows back through our team."

A Bucky-shaped void: Gritty holding midfielder Barak "Bucky" Benyehuda missed the match against New Paltz after receiving his fifth yellow card of the season in the last game, but he sat in the stands and was boisterous in support throughout -- just one example of this team's unified culture.

Benyehuda is certainly one of the side's vocal leaders and does a fine job confronting the first wave of opposing offenses. He'll return for Saturday's match against Oneonta, although Sarr and Pavone -- both sitting on four yellow cards on the season -- will not feature, Howlett noted.

Despite the absence of Benyehuda, goalie William Banahene kept the clean sheet, his sixth of the season, while Daniel Aguilar Lobo, Tashko Strembenis, Alex Cassells and Danny Clavin joined Williamson in limiting the Hawks' chances.

Is that Chris Smalling?: Williamson's teammates call him "Smalling," after Manchester United back Chris Smalling. When asked about the nickname, the freshman grinned and admitted he's heard that comparison his whole life because of their similar looks.

Because he's a United fan, Williamson is content with the moniker.

That's Buffalo State's Robert Williamson on the left, and Manchester United's Chris Smalling on the right.

That's Buffalo State's Robert Williamson on the left, and Manchester United's Chris Smalling on the right.

Email Ben Tsujimoto at btsujimoto@buffnews.com

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