The Hatters and Buccaneers will square off on Friday night at Summers-Taylor Stadium on the ETSU campus in a semifinal game that will have the feel of another championship game, even if it simply for a berth in the 2011 title game. The game is scheduled for a 7 p.m. start.
East Tennessee State defeated the Hatters 1-0 on an overtime goal to win the 2010 A-Sun title. The teams continued their head-to-head rivalry this year when they battled to a scoreless tie on October 14 in a game that was also played in Johnson City.
The last time the Hatters got the upper hand on the Buccaneers was a 2-0 victory in DeLand in 2010. Stetson also topped ETSU in the 2009 A-Sun tournament, taking a 3-2 victory in a semifinal match that led the Hatters into a title game victory over Mercer.
The Bucs came into the 2011 tournament as the sixth seed after posting a 3-4-1 league record, but moved into the semifinal match with Stetson with a 2-0 upset victory over third-seeded Jacksonville on Wednesday.
Hatters coach Logan Fleck said there is no team in the Atlantic Sun that he would rather play than ETSU.
“Beating the defending champs at home is never easy,” Fleck said. “But, I like the attention, and I want there to be a bunch of people there to see us play. Getting to play ETSU guarantees that. I think that creates a great environment and gets you prepared if you are fortunate enough to make it to the NCAA Tournament.”
While the Buccaneers struggled to just to make the field for the A-Sun Tournament, the Hatters enter play on Friday night riding a nine-game unbeaten streak. Stetson has won three straight matches entering the tournament and is 7-0-2 since losing to Florida Gulf Coast in the A-Sun opener.
“Back in August, no one would have thought that we would be undefeated in the month of October, but I call us the little school that can,” Fleck said. “Our expectation every time out is to go win.
“In early August we lost the player of the year from last year and the preseason player of the year this year, Fredrik Brustad, when he went professional. I put some challenges out there to our team and they have been doing nothing but rising to those challenges.”
Stetson senior Gonzalo de Mujica said he expects the match with ETSU on Friday to be just like the last two the teams have played.
“There is a lot revenge going through our heads because they beat us in the final last year,” de Mujica said. “We want to beat them on their home field and win the title this year. Both teams have played to their maximum potential and it is all a matter of which team gets that one break-through to win the game. That is probably what will happen on Friday, whoever finishes that one chance will win the game.”
The be the team that capitalizes on the one or two scoring opportunities the game will likely present, the Hatters will have to be the team to force its style of play on ETSU.
“If we play our game, and we impose our style on them, and then we finish our chances, then we will walk away with a win,” Fleck said. “I think it will be a great game.”
The fact that this game is a win or go home match is not lost on the Hatters’ Jonathan Mendoza, who was the A-Sun Player of the Year.
“It is a semifinal game and everyone wants to win,” Mendoza said. “ETSU has a great team and it is going to be a battle. This is a different game from the last time because this is winner stays and loser goes home.”
Fleck said he will count on guys like de Mujica and Mendoza to set the tone for the Hatters.
“I think chemistry has been the key to this unbeaten streak,” Fleck said. “The guys have just come together. I put challenges in front of this Stetson team to go out and play a schedule that is extremely difficult. It took us some time to start to blend and play together.
“We have freshmen who are playing for this team, and young sophomores who are doing a great job. It is a team that is being led very strongly by de Mujica. He is our secret weapon because he is the epitome of what a team captain is all about, on and off the field. He has led this team to a whole new level. Now we want to see how far these levels can go.”
The one wildcard factor in the game, besides playing on ETSU’s home field, is the weather. A cold front will drop temperatures for the game into the low 40s on Friday.
“It is going to be cold, so our Florida team will have to run faster just to keep warm,” Fleck said. “We are not even going to give them sweat suits to wear so that they have to run around to stay warm. After the game we will defrost them and, if we are fortunate enough to go to the championship game, we’ll get them ready for Sunday.”
The Hatters’ captain said he expects to be back in that game on Sunday.
“After we lost our first A-Sun match to Gulf Coast, we got it into our minds that we were not going to let that happen any more,” de Mujica said. “From that day on we started winning. It is scary for me because this is the last two games in the A-Sun for me. I believe in my team and hopefully we can get the win on Friday and then again on Sunday.”
Sunday’s championship game is scheduled for a 1 p.m. start.