Updated: Sep 20
Belmont men’s soccer lost by one goal in a dramatic bout against Mercer University at the Southern Conference Championship game.
Though it seemed the Bruins would hold their early 2-0 lead, the tides shifted in the dying minutes of the first half, leaving them to fight to a bitter 3-4 defeat.
The game marks the second season in a row head coach David Costa’s squad has made it to the conference finale and left defeated.
Mercer’s Bears struggled getting started in the beginning of the contest and Belmont’s offense, led by senior Liam O’Brien, took advantage.
In the 19th minute, a cross from senior Ares Marlonsson to the left side of the field found forward Liam O’Brien in the box. O’Brien took his time and finessed the ball neatly into the right side of the net, curling outside of the hands of the Bears’ keeper for a dream opening.
Just a minute later, a long ball from Belmont’s defensive end of the field allowed O’Brien to once again pressure Mercer’s defense, which did not get a chance to reset after the Bruins’ goal.
As one of the Bears’ defenders attempted to clear the threat, O’Brien made a perfectly timed tackle that deflected the clearance over the head of Mercer’s poorly positioned keeper and into the back of the net.
Mercer, now desperate to recover from two quickfire goals, began to push numbers up the field to threaten Belmont’s defense.
The Bruins handled the pressure effectively with five saves from goalkeeper Drew Romig in the first half. However, in the last 6 minutes of the first half, the match began turning on its head.
In the 39th minute, a foul in the box by Kyle Barks led to a penalty in Mercer’s favor. The Bears’ Dylan Gaither stepped up to the spot-kick and put the ball past Romig.
Gaither found the ball in the right end of the 18-yard box after a cross from the left side of the pitch only 2 minutes later. Gaither’s perfect first touch allowed him to get the ball past his defender, and a sharp cut with his right foot squared him up toward the goal. Gaither finished the ball with his left foot into a wide-open left side of the net.
Mercer’s pressure was rewarded with 11 shots, compared to Belmont’s four, but the teams were level at 2-all at the half-time whistle.
Belmont insisted on taking the lead in the game, and with Mercer’s Gaither tending a sudden unknown injury on the sideline, there was an opportunity to advance.
The first 20 minutes of the second half was filled with back-and-forth action as both defenses refused to concede.
But as Gaither returned to the pitch, the game once again turned in favor of the Bears.
Mercer’s Michael Ille received a pass from Gaither and made a quick turn in the middle of the penalty box, giving him enough space to rocket the ball into the top-left roof of Romig’s net.
Mercer had earned its first lead of the game, 3-2.
But the Bruins were not going down without a fight. As the clock ticked closer to the 80th minute, a corner kick from senior Niccolo Dagnoni found Estaban Lestido, who headed the ball into the bottom right corner.
With the game leveled, Belmont appeared to be preparing itself for overtime but a counterattack in the 87th minute caught the Bruins’ defense outnumbered.
A shot from the Bears’ Trevor Martineu was slowed down by the hands of Romig, but it eventually rolled past the goal line and would be the deciding factor in crowning Mercer the 2021-22 SoCon Champions.
Though the Bruins narrowly missed a SoCon title for yet another season, Belmont played well throughout the tournament and had an exciting and impressive road to the final.
In the first round, the Bruins beat No. 5 seeded Eastern Tennessee State University 1-0 thanks to a long goal by AJ Chastonay and six saves from Romig to keep his side in the game. Belmont moved on to rematch No. 1 seeded University of North Carolina Greensboro for the semifinals.
Despite losing to UNCG in the playoffs last season, the Bruins rallied to the away challenge and defeated the favored team 2-1 for the second time this season. Senior Jack Shaw and O’Brien scored the goals while Romig made five saves in the game.
The Bruins walked away from the Southern Conference without a title, but new pastures lie ahead for Costa’s team next season as it prepares to face new challenges in the Missouri Valley Conference.
PHOTO: Belmont’s No. 9 Ares Marlonsson at a home game during the 2021-22 regular season. Belmont Vision / Jessica Mattsson.
This article was written by David Pang.