You could not have scripted Marcus Hanson's Senior Night more perfectly.
The Bulls' captain wrested hope from the jaws of defeat with a late strike before a world-class goal from Russell Cicerone propelled the Bulls to a 2-1 win over Bowling Green, sealing the program's first trip to the Mid-American Conference Tournament since 2011.
After going down in the 76th minute, UB struck in the 87th and 88th minutes, respectively, resulting in a wild scene at the final whistle, where Cicerone laid on his back, exhausted but jubilant, as several other Bulls piled on Hanson.
"It's something I'm going to tell my kids, when my best friend scores for the other team (Bowling Green's Ryan James), [I] score the equalizer and my best friend on my team scores the winner," an exhilarated Hanson said after the match."You can't write it any better. You really can't."
Producing in crucial moments is central to leadership, and when Daniel Cramarossa's corner kick found Hanson's left foot 12 yards from goal, the venerable senior took his chance.
"We call him the father of the team," Cicerone said of Hanson, one of two holdovers from before Stu Riddle arrived as the Bulls' coach. "[Marcus] is our leader, and he really showed it there."
The dramatic comeback in the face of bleak circumstances was still setting in for UB's head coach moments after the game's conclusion.
"It's hard to believe right now," Riddle admitted. "I'm sitting here pinching myself, wondering if those last five minutes really took place. These lads have worked so hard in the three years I've been here, waiting for an opportunity, and that never-say-die attitude we've spoken about -- becoming a lot harder to beat -- you saw that tonight, and they just didn't give up."
The majestic game winner: Cicerone's winning goal was breathtaking, an individual moment of brilliance that was more special technically than his overtime winner from midfield last year. It was certainly more meaningful. [It's at 1:01 of the video below]
"[Steven] Stryker made a great play against a huge center back that he fought off, and then he played me through," Cicerone explains. "The ball got caught in my feet a little bit, and then I had to dazzle a little bit to get it back on my foot. I was thinking, 'Should I shoot?' but then I dribbled, saw an opening and then put it away."
"If you get the best player in the conference one-on-one, there's only going to be one outcome," Riddle added.
Through patience, guile and flair, Cicerone duped three defenders and a goalie in one of the biggest moments of his career. The finish, his 11th of the season and third game-winner, drew the highest of praise from his head coach.
"He's a wizard," Riddle said, shaking his head. "He's got a massive future ahead of him -- I'm not talking just MLS, I think he can go all the way to the top."
Whether that means the English Premier League or the U.S. National Team or somewhere else, Cicerone was just thrilled that he'd accomplished a childhood goal.
"Since coming in as a freshman, this is all I've dreamed of, playing in the MAC Tournament, playing under the lights in those pressure situations," said Cicerone. "It's what every kid soccer player dreams of, so to finally get here is a dream come true."
Senior Night: In addition to Hanson, fellow seniors Dylan Cope and Nicolay Netskar were honored before the match for their contributions to the Bulls' soccer program. A transfer from Iona, the reserve midfielder Cope spent two years with the Bulls and was on the pitch during UB's late comeback Friday night. Netskar, in his third year with UB after joining from Wheeling Jesuit, played the final 11:30 of the first half against Bowling Green as a substitute.
The MAC table: The Bulls improved to 2-1-1 in conference, and the seven points make them the second team to clinch a postseason berth (3-0-1 Akron is the other). UB has one more regular season game, a 1 p.m. tilt on Nov. 7 at Western Michigan, before the Mid-American Conference Tournament begins on Nov. 13.
"We deserve this," Hanson concluded. "It's been a long time, and it's finally come.
Email Ben Tsujimoto at email@example.com