Before Wednesday night, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference campaigns for the Canisius men's and women's soccer teams had brought primarily disappointment, particularly troubling for the men's team predicted to win the MAAC before the season.
But for one night, at least, both Canisius sides seized encouraging results from Battle of the Bridge rivalry matches against Niagara University, with Dermot McGrane's men winning handily, 4-0, on the road and Todd Clark's women coming back from a late two-goal deficit for a 2-2 tie at Demske Sports Complex.
Grand Island High School alum Troy Brady broke a late first-half scoreless deadlock off a fine feed from Manuele Cavazzoli, then doubled the lead in the 60th minute with a shot uncharacteristically bungled by Niagara goalkeeper Steve Casey. After accruing 20 points in his sophomore campaign, Brady is up to 12 - five goals and two assists - through 10 games this year.
Late tallies by Melvin Blair and Cavazzoli capped the scoring, while sophomore goalkeeper Tom Crosbie kept a clean sheet in his first start of the season, needing only one save.
ICYMI | Hear from head coach Dermot McGrane, junior Troy Brady and sophomore Manuele Cavazzoli following last night's victory! pic.twitter.com/iu8pkLmqet
— Canisius Mens Soccer (@GriffsSoccer) October 11, 2018
Crosbie's inclusion in the lineup over incumbent Bryce Tramuta wasn't the only switch by McGrane, who welcomed the return of senior center back Alex Grattarola, a preseason All-MAAC selection, from injury. The 6'6 Frenchman was hurt in the 10-0 non-conference lost to Akron on Sept. 15 and missed essentially the next four weeks of action, including the first trio of MAAC games - all losses.
Young outside backs Giovanni Coraggioso and Vince Cancilla were relegated to the bench, with seniors Mo Kretschmer, typically a holding center midfielder before his own 18-month injury spell, slotting in at right back and Will Pauls, usually deployed in the midfield, serving as left back. Pauls' switch mirrors last season, when McGrane entrusted then-senior Lucian Preis to adjust to a role at right back and was rewarded.
Cavazzoli was a whirling dervish from the opening whistle, and his job was made easier when Niagara midfielder and captain Bautista Pedezert was forced out of the match with a head injury in the third minute. Known more for his tackling than his distribution and goal scoring, the Italian sophomore Cavazzoli produced in the latter two categories Wednesday.
Stay tuned for more thorough coverage of the Canisius men's soccer team in the next week.
Griffs junior goalkeeper Alana Rossi stood tall Wednesday, withstanding Niagara's offensive onslaught in the first half and keeping the deficit to 2-0. Despite misjudging a corner kick on the Purple Eagles' first goal, Rossi made two dynamite stops - including a flying denial on a shot bound for the right upper-90 - on Niagara's Kelsey Araujo to prevent a blowout.
Resilient Canisius found life offensively when, after a foul in Niagara's 18-yard box, Maddie Beaulieu calmly deposited her penalty kick to cut the lead in half. Just 90 seconds later, Clark's Griffs found the equalizer on a deflected header by Swedish midfielder Alicia Larsson-Vahlberg, created by a volleyed cross from Gretta Dry.
Hear from Head Coach Todd Clark and Madeline Beaulieu following today's draw. pic.twitter.com/qk9Qd9I8uY
— Canisius Women's Soccer (@CanisiusWSOC) October 11, 2018
Still, it was visiting Niagara on the front foot in overtime, as Amelia Gulley's header was thwarted by Rossi in the first overtime, then shots by Kelsey Araujo and Annie Ibey were stifled by Canisius' player of the match. Rossi notched eight saves, tying her season high, on the evening.
Redshirt senior Gulley and speedy Hailey Bicknell accounted for the Purple Eagles' first-half goals. In total, Niagara out-shot Canisius, 27-10. NU now boasts a 3-2-2 record in MAAC play, positioning them well for a playoff spot.
At 1-4-2 in MAAC play, Canisius' five points are well shy of the 10 necessary to break into the top six - the dividing line for a playoff berth. That's a lot of ground to make up with just three conference matches remaining, but those tilts - against Quinnipiac, Rider and Siena - are essentially six-point games, as that trio clings to the bottom three playoff spots (to make matters worse, they all have a game in-hand in relation to Canisius).
To say the remaining MAAC games are must-wins for the Griffs would be an understatement. Read more about the team - including their philosophy, with a quirky title - below.
While we tried to look at the Niagara men's team with rose-colored glasses (through that heart-ridden Snapchat filter?) in our big-picture primer Wednesday morning, the stark reality was evident in the Battle of the Bridge: the Purple Eagles aren't deep enough to compensate for injuries to key players.
Without Pedezert for 87 minutes and defender Borna Juracic for the whole match, head coach Bill Boyle was forced to trot out Jordan Acevedo and Hector Solorio Villalpando as his center-back pairing - troubling because both are converted midfielders - and also play Drew Francisco, Josh Tufino and Danilo Pekovic heavier minutes in the midfield. Possession was lopsided in the Griffs' favor.
While Acevedo and Solorio, along with fullbacks Matt Lopoyda and Matthew Krucko-Moeller, held firm despite regular pressure for the first 40 minutes, the back four was eventually overcome by Canisius' pace and persistent charges forward.
Luca Pacheco, the reigning MAAC offensive player of the week, generated the Purple Eagles' best first-half chance, curling a free kick just wide of Crosbie's near post, but was otherwise quiet. Casey's final stat line, no saves on four shots on goal, was alarming - as was his howler on Brady's second goal - but the veteran keeper was hung out to dry on the other three conceded.
*Stay tuned for a close look into the Niagara women's soccer team, to be published Friday morning.