The road to a MAAC title: Bumpy, cultured and ‘a lot of grit’


Peyton McKenzie

The Bobcats won the MAAC Championship 3-2 against Iona, but lost in the first round of the MAAC Championship to Vermont by the same score.

Michael Sicoli, Staff Writer

What makes a great sports program?

There’s a lot that goes into it, too much to whittle down into one subject. The available talent is an obvious one — you cannot win without the sheer athletic ability to do so. Chemistry and coaching also matters a ton, as the trust within a team is paramount toward co- hesiveness on the field.

But there’s also a need for innate resiliency. Quinnipiac men’s soccer head coach Eric Da Costa has seen it, and put it into words after a rainy, hard-fought 3-2 win against Marist on Oct. 5.

“You saw a lot of emotion,” Da Costa said. “A lot of grit.”

The Bobcats captured the hearts and minds of many this year, as they put to rest several years of disappointing endings to claim the MAAC title for the first time since 2013. The road to a championship is hardly a smooth one, and the Bobcats were no exception.

Two years ago, this squad suffered a heart-breaking 1-0 loss on its own turf to Monmouth. Quinnipiac players could only watch as then-Monmouth sophomore forward Julian Gomez, who scored the winning goal in the 86th minute, paraded around the field smiling from ear-to-ear.

Seniors and underclassmen alike were sprawled on the turf. In a shortened 2020-21 season that left everyone in desperate need of a good win, the ball just didn’t bounce the Bobcats’ way.

“We’re just gonna let this feeling sink in for a while before we turn around and reevaluate, but trust me, we will turn this program upside down and inside out trying to figure out how we can get better or what we can do better,” Da Costa said after that game.

The program would be turned upside down, flipped on its head or however you want to put it. But that process didn’t bear fruit as quickly as Quinnipiac would’ve liked.

In 2021 — a chance to cleanse the bad taste the season prior had left — the Bobcats missed the playoffs altogether. They finished 9-8, a poor 4-6 in conference, after starting 5-0 in their non-conference slate.

Quinnipiac didn’t look like a team ready to compete. It looked like a team that didn’t know how to defend — conceding almost two goals a game — and a unit that was overly reliant on then-junior forward Brage Aasen to make magic out of nothing on the offensive end.

Hell, it was regarded as one of the best fall sports Quinnipiac had to offer, and one with an outside venue that allowed fans to witness in-person sports with fewer restrictions. Yet the team allowed 11 goals at home to in-conference teams across just five games.

It just wasn’t good enough. Yet a year later, all of that would be — as Da Costa once said — turned upside down.

Eamon Whelan, who graduated from Quin- nipiac in 2019 as men’s soccer’s third-leading goal scorer in program history, is now in dental school at the University of Connecticut. Still, the former striker keeps tabs on the team — through the highs and the lows.

“The Quinnipiac community, like the soccer team, is very tight knit,” Whelan said. “(I’m) fol- lowing the boys whenever I can and things like that… I was very connected with it, seeing how kids were doing, following stats, stuff like that.”

Whelan has unique history with Da Costa, who coached him even before the former Bobcat was a Bobcat, at the club level. And with that insight comes a deeper appreciation for what Da Costa can bring to a squad in desperate need for a pick-me-up.

“You take soccer out of it, he’s a great guy,” Whelan said. “He was always there for you … And that for me was important. Because while he was a soccer coach, and obviously had a lot of success as a soccer coach, he was still able to relate to kids off the field.”

Trust gets bred this way and isn’t built overnight. It culminates over a long season, and even the time before it. Even more than that, you just get heart. When players buy into the scheme you’re proposing, it can translate into production.

“I think where he separated himself was getting to know each player personally, background things like that, and that helps,” Whelan said. “As a player, to know a guy that you like is coaching you. It’s easy to connect, and it’s almost easier to say, ‘OK, I’m gonna go play hard for him.’”

But it never goes as planned. Aasen, who has been one of the Bobcats’ best players since Whelan graduated, suffered an injury that would sideline him for about a month. Quinnipiac ran its offense through Aasen in 2021. The team was 7-1 when the Norwegian forward scored. They were 2-7 when he did not.

Other squads may have thrown in the towel. But this time, the team rallied. Senior forward and team captain David Bercedo ascended to top form in a year that would end with him securing the MAAC’s Golden Boot in a 14-goal season.

The new faces to the starting squad were just as impactful. Freshmen midfielder Alexander Stjernegaard and goalkeeper Karl Netzell, as well as sophomore defender Sander Sonsterud, were consistent contributors all year long before earning places on the All- MAAC first and second teams.

Since 2016, the Bobcats boast three MAAC Rookies of the Year in Whelan, Stjernegaard and forward Tomas Svecula. Whelan partly attributed the production Quinnipiac has gotten from its first years to a certain saying he heard as a freshman himself: “There’s no freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors.”

“We are all playing on the same team, doesn’t matter how old they are, doesn’t matter the grade,” Whelan said. “We’re all just here to do the same end goal, and that’s to win a championship.”

If any game had shown that this was a different Bobcats team, it was an unforgettable draw against Iona.

“As long as there’s time left on that clock we’re going to keep fighting,” junior defender Jared Smith said.

Smith scored the game-tying goal against the Gaels in the last minute of that match on Oct. 15.

They clawed their way back to tie an impressive Iona team they would later defeat in the MAAC Finals. There just wasn’t any quit with this squad, and it was evident in the results.

Quinnipiac won a conference title for the first time in almost a decade. It boasted a squad with the conference’s Coach of the Year, leader in goals, as well as assists — Da Costa, Bercedo and Stjernegaard. The team also had four first-team All-MAAC players and two second-team All-MAAC players.

Bercedo’s Golden Boot win was also the first time a Bobcat claimed the award since — you guessed it — Whelan in 2018. Still, it was arguably Bercedo’s defensive play that always seemed to keep him close to the ball.

“He knows that being a leader is more than just wearing an armband,” Da Costa said after the MAAC Finals. “It’s about what you do, not so much what you say.”

It’s work ethic. It’s fight. It’s about leading by example, and all of that makes up this program.

While the team’s journey ended in an overtime loss to Vermont — 3-2, with the game-winner coming with a heart-wrenching two minutes to play before penalty kicks — it doesn’t take away from the monumental accomplishments this team had.