From 1995 to 2006, the University of Rhode Island captured six Atlantic 10 men’s soccer championships and won four games in the NCAA Tournament.
Over the next 11 years, the Rams didn’t win another title or make another tourney trip, but the standards didn’t budge. An A-10 title game loss in 2014 and conference semifinal trips the last three years weren’t going to leave an imprint in the record books. The bar remained high.
“They’re all well aware of the history of URI soccer,” head coach Gareth Elliott said, “and they wanted to be part of that history, as well.”
The 2018 Rams can now take their place in the annals.
URI went on a flawless run through the A-10 Championship last week, shutting out three consecutive opponents and winning its first title since 2006 with a 2-0 victory over George Mason on Sunday in St. Louis. Back in the NCAA Tournament, the Rams will visit Connecticut today at 1 p.m. in a first-round game.
“We were so close the last couple of years,” senior Dominik Richter said. “It seemed like we were cursed or whatever to not be champions. This year, we just fought through adversity and we made it. It was great.”
The Rams ended the regular season at 12-4 and 5-3 in A-10 play. They lost their regular season finale to the same George Mason team they would go on to meet in the tournament title game, with a red card to Richter forcing them to play a man down for 65 minutes.
“That was not the way we wanted to end the regular season, but it is what it is,” Elliott said. “We were lucky enough to still get a home game. Going into the tournament, we felt fairly confident about the group as a whole.”
Seeded fourth for the A-10 Championship, the Rams hosted a first-round game and beat Fordham 2-0 on Nov. 4. That earned them a fifth consecutive berth in the semifinals, where top-seeded VCU was waiting. Chae Brangman broke a scoreless tie in the second half, and the Rams logged another shutout in a 1-0 win.
Back in the finals for the first time since 2014 – when it lost 1-0 to Fordham– Rhody kept rolling in the rematch with George Mason. Richter broke the ice when he converted a penalty kick in the 15th minute. Emil Jesman Sunde triggered the beginnings of a celebration with a goal in the 95th minute, and the Rams finished off a third straight shutout to start the real party.
“You can see it on the video – I just broke down,” Richter said. “It felt like such a big weight came off my shoulders. I was just on the ground, just enjoying the moment. I still haven’t completely realized it.”
“Finally getting to the finals was an amazing moment,” junior Stavros Zarokostas said. “Once we were there, we were confident, but getting the result was amazing. It was the goal from the beginning of the season. When you set a goal and achieve it, it feels great.”
The win was special for Elliott, who was part of the 1999 and 2000 A-10 championship teams as a player and the 2003, 2005 and 2006 title squads as an assistant coach.
“I probably felt a little more emotional than I thought I would,” he said. “It’s been a long time. We’ve been trying to get back to the dance for 12 years. To be an alum and be able to get the team back as the head coach – it felt good. And I felt really good for the players because they’ve put a lot of work in over the years and hadn’t gotten their just rewards. I think they did this year.”
The tournament run was fueled by defensive dominance, the same trait that first put the Rams on the map this season. They opened the campaign with six consecutive shutouts on their way to a spot in national rankings.
After the shutout streak ended, the Rams didn’t record another clean sheet, but rediscovered the right brand of soccer in the postseason. Goalie Roger Penske made 19 saves in the three tourney games, the Tyler Dickson-led defense clamped down, and the Rams played with a shutdown mindset all over the field.
“We started the season really solid defensively – six games, no goals conceded,” Elliott said. “In the middle of the season, we sort of changed our ways a little bit and maybe weren’t as tight defensively but maybe scored more goals. We talked to the group about how defense wins championships. Getting back to defending solid and getting numbers behind the ball. You play three games and you don’t give up a goal, you’re going to have success. We got back to playing that kind of defense, and we have guys that can score goals.”
URI will apply the same formula to the next step as it preps for the program’s 12th NCAA Tournament appearance. Regional rival UConn earned its spot opposite URI thanks to an at-large berth. The teams have some familiarity with each other, having met in the 2015 and 2016 regular seasons. They were scheduled to meet this year, but the September matchup was canceled due to weather.
Thursday’s game will be played at Rentschler Field, home of UConn football, in East Hartford. The Huskies typically play on campus in Storrs.
For the Rams, it’s an opportunity to start making more history.
“For me, it’s all bonus right now. The A-10 was always my big goal,” Richter said. “But I think with this group of guys, we can really do anything. It’s game by game. We can beat any team on any day. It’s just about who wants it more, and I think we want it really bad. When we established our goals in the preseason, some guys were talking about a national championship. That might seem crazy, but who would have thought we’d be here at this point? Anything is possible.”
“We’ve enjoyed the last 24 hours,” Elliott said. “I think now it’s back to work.”