For the second time in as many seasons, the AU men's soccer team will host the Patriot League Tournament, Friday and Sunday at Reeves Field. But this year has been hardly anything like the last.
In 2004, led by seniors Thomas Myers in goal, Sean Albright, Charlie Koniver and Nick Zaron on defense, Shawn Kuykendall at midfield and Dave Marut up front, the Eagles entered the PL playoffs with a 9-1-1 mark in their last 11 games. Then-sophomores Garth Juckem and Sal Caccavale played off the space created by their senior teammates, making AU was the most dangerous and well-rounded playoff squad.
In 2005, despite a 5-2 record in the PL and at home overall, AU isn't such clear a favorite. Caccavale and Juckem are still dangerous, but their youthful team has suffered growing pains, especially on defense. The Eagles (6-9-1) bare the worst overall record of the four-team playoff field. And other than Army, which languished in the bottom of the PL standings, AU is the only PL team below .500 overall.
"That's a young team opposed to a veteran team," Juckem said. "But we had to deal with a lot.... Our class played a big-time role in last year's season. Now, we got here again, when people thought we weren't able to."
His class, now juniors, has been there before. Juckem scored the Eagles' only two goals in the PL Tournament run last year. Then Caccavale scored AU's only goal in its 2-1 NCAA Tournament second-round loss to Virginia. Junior defenders Nathan Baker and Nigel white also played and usually started that season
The question is, as juniors, are they ready to be pseudo-seniors?
"I hope ours are," said AU head coach Todd West. "But that stands to be proven on Friday morning. A coach can say what he wants, but I firmly believe that's what shows up Friday ... what the upperclassmen have done to get people ready."
So far, those upperclassmen have prevented a bending team from breaking in October and early November. It was then that AU beat out its league competition, including the three other PL playoff teams (all in home contests), to secure the top spot.
"We have bought into the fact that we're pretty good at home," West said. "The way we play, our field allows us to do that. Some other places (in the PL) don't."
Though the Eagles struggled on the road, their one road win came when direly needed. They notched a 2-1 victory over Bucknell on Oct. 29 with the PL knotted four ways at the time. At the end of the regular season, AU tied for the best PL record with Lafayette (12-4-1 overall), and held the head-to-head tiebreak via a 2-1 double-overtime victory over the Leopards Sept. 24.
Going back to 2004, the Leopards haven't solved the Eagles. Last season, AU beat Lafayette twice in a week - a 3-2 overtime victory in Pennsylvania on Nov. 6 that clinched the regular season title, and a muddy 1-0 win six days later at home in the PL semifinals.
For the top-seeded Eagles to face Lafayette this time, they must first dismiss No. 4 seed Colgate (9-6-3, 4-3-0) Friday morning at 11 a.m. AU first beat Colgate, 3-1, on October 22.
No. 2 seed Lafayette must beat No. 3 seed and hated rivals Lehigh (10-4-1, 4-3-0) in the match that follows, six days after eeking past them at home, 2-1.
If there's ever a chance to knock the eagles off at home, this might be it. Every team playing in the weekend's tournament already knows the Reeves Field surface. Baring a repeat of last season's monsoon, they should know what to Expect.
But against an AU team regaining its title-defending swagger, winning away in Washington isn't easy or enviable.
"I think every team in the Patriot League is scared to play American," Caccavale said. "Nobody wants to play here."
Added Juckem: "As I said last year] and I'll say now, it's all about confidence. When you believe in yourself, you can pretty much do anything."
The Eagles, with a 3-0 record against the field this year, have reason to believe. And if they repeat as champions, there's no reason they can't go as far or further in the NCAA tournament. Just look back a few years.
"Our Sweet 16 team (in 2001) lost eight games," West said. "I told them 'you guys have only lost nine games, that's one more than a Sweet 16 team has lost."
If and when that 10th loss comes is the question