Defending the crown

Nick Solari

It took nine long years for Quinnipiac head coach Eric Da Costa to win a conference title, but last season’s journey to the NCAA Tournament was just the beginning for the men’s soccer team, as he sees it.

Da Costa is tasked with finding the formula to repeat as champions, but doesn’t think that last season’s success has anything to do with 2014.

“(Winning the MAAC) doesn’t change anything, the trophy just sits in this office,” Da Costa said, pointing toward the 2013 MAAC Championship memento that sits on a desk directly across the room from his.

“I walk out, close the door behind me and then security takes care of it. It doesn’t come to the field with us.”

Da Costa continues to put emphasis on improvement for this year’s team. Taking things one day at a time is how the Bobcats succeeded last year, and that formula hasn’t changed in the eight months since they last played.

“We’re going to try and do the same things we did last year,” goalie Borja Angoitia said. “We’ve got a game Friday and then Saturday, we go game by game.”

Angoitia, the reigning MAAC Goalkeeper of the Year, sits at the center of a defense with high expectations. Angoitia, a native of Bilbao, Spain, played alongside some of the game’s best players in La Liga before he came to Quinnipiac, and has taken the program to new heights since arriving.

He posted a .70 goals against average last season to go along with an 84.3 percent save percentage and eight shutouts in the regular season. He then shut out Monmouth in the MAAC Championship game, winning the tournament Most Valuable Player award en route to Quinnipiac’s first national tournament appearance in program history.

Still, he insists the accolades aren’t a priority.

“All the awards and stats mean nothing,” Angoitia said. “I don’t care if we win 10-9 or 9-0, as long as we win I’m satisfied.”

In front of him, the Bobcats will return defenders Stevenson Hawkey, Erik Panzer, Tobias Esche and Ashton Pett, who all played a big role in 2013 championship team.

“We’re fortunate to have our defense returning,” Da Costa said. “You hate to use clichés, but when people say ‘good offenses win games, but good defenses win championships,’ that certainly applies to our team.”

The backline doesn’t lack confidence, either. Angoitia and Esche both think that, with the core back, 2014 can be another promising season.

“We can handle the pressure,” Angoitia said. “I’m not worried about that. We’ve been tested before as a defense in the back, and we’ve been fine.”

“It’s important that we just keep playing well, giving the people in front of us confidence,” Esche said. “If we do that, we’ll have a good chance to win games again.”

Da Costa has chosen both Esche and Angoitia as co-captains for the team.

And now that last year’s captain, Simon Hinde, has graduated, Quinnipiac will have an important void to fill — scoring.

Hinde led the team with 10 goals last season, accounting for more than the rest of the team combined.

Da Costa isn’t worried, though.

“It just means that other players have to step up and take on some responsibility,” Da Costa said. “You go with the guys you have, you trust in them, and I’m confident that they’ll pick up the slack.”

Machel Baker is among the returning forwards, and will be expected to find the back of the net often after scoring four times in 2013, second on the team.

“I’m confident that the offense will be good,” Esche said. “They continue to improve just like the rest of the team, and they know we have their backs.”

The Bobcats’ first test came on Aug. 17. They traveled to Storrs to play Connecticut, the No. 8 ranked team in the nation, and the two teams tied in the exhibition.

It proved Quinnipiac has officially emerged as one of the powerhouses in New England, and reassured the players thoughts heading into a new year.

“Going to Storrs, tying a team like UConn means a lot for us,” Esche said. “It’s a beautiful field and a great team, and if we can play to a draw with them we know we can compete with just about anyone.”

Connecticut defeated Quinnipiac 2-1 at the same venue on Nov. 21, knocking the Bobcats out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament and ending their season.

And for Angoitia and his teammates, experiencing what it feels like to play in the national tournament is all the motivation they need.

“We have to win our conference first, taking it one day after another,” Angoitia said. “But we want to get back to the NCAA’s, no doubt about it.”

“Until we get there, we’ll just continue to handle business as usual. We have fun, but we know when it’s time to focus.”