Penn, Drexel, Delaware open NCAA tournament play with aspirations of playing at PPL Park

Three local teams playing for chance to end season at PPL Park

College Cup Rudy and Doug

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Philadelphia Union Communications

It’s been quite the week for Penn coach Rudy Fuller and Drexel coach Doug Hess.

Both head the men’s soccer program at their respective institutions and both led their teams to conference titles, in addition to automatic berths into the NCAA men’s soccer tournament which begin Thursday night.

These coaches will tell you that their path to get to that point came by virtue of catching fire at the best time as both clubs won when it counted. Drexel downed Delaware and William and Mary to capture its first Colonial Athletic Association honor. For Penn, it was wins down the stretch that secured its eighth Ivy League crown and third since the turn of the century.

Thursday, both clubs open first round action with the hopes of being among the final four that will vie for the NCAA title Dec. 13-15 at PPL Park.  For Drexel (9-7-4 overall), it’s a trip to Virginia to face Old Dominion (6 p.m.) while Penn (8-8-1 overall) stays at home as the higher seed to host Providence at Rhodes Field (7 p.m.), runners-up in the Big East title game held Sunday – at PPL Park.

In fact, to ask Fuller, it was the game against these two Philadelphia Soccer Six teams in October that set the tone for the season – on both sides.

“Unfortunately we went through a stretch of six games, where we dropped all six,” Fuller told philadelphiaunion.com.  “Although, in most of them we played well and put ourselves in position to win some of them, we didn’t. That wears on the psyche of your team. I think coming off the weekend at home, we were in a very precarious spot. We had a game against Drexel at home, and then we were slated to open up against Cornell. You know, that game against Drexel (Penn won, 3-2) really served as a turning point. Drexel is a very good team as you can see by their results and where they ended up this year. So to get a win against them was a huge lift for our group heading into that game against Cornell who was defending Ivy League Champions, and we were able to come with a win there. There was when we started to see things blossom. From that point on, our guys really responded.”

For Hess, his group struggled after that match but won when it mattered most. The results came by virtue of instilling the importance of critical matches, ones that would be a “lose and potentially go home” situation.

It was a notion Hess’ team took to heart.

“To be honest, I wouldn’t say we had a great season; we had a timely season,” Hess said. “Last year we had a good body of work. This year, we won at the right time. You know, I think, that is part of the process as well for our players. Knowing, that OK, if we lose a game we are done. Playing with that real pressure does a ton for your team.

And how did Hess teach his group to handle said pressure?

Only in the most intriguing and unique way possible, of course.

“You get to the moment where every game you have to treat like it’s a Cup final,” Hess said. “We know that for us there could be 27 different scenarios, because the CAA is a crazy league – everyone is good in the CAA. So from that point, we start training like it’s a Cup final…Cup final…Cup final. Every training session we had there was a winner and a loser, we take a picture of the winning team, getting a ‘trophy,’ which was like a road cone, but we took a picture of both the winning and losing team and from there it became a mental thing.”

Pressure will certainly be prevalent from the first kick for both sides tomorrow night, but it's evident for both coaches that the steps to prepare for it all have gone on all season.

Odds and endlines

Another local team looking to find its season culminating at PPL Park in less than a month’s time is Delaware who made the tournament as an at-large team after coming up short against Drexel in the second round of the CAA tournament. Delaware which compiled a 14-4-1 overall record this season will host St. John’s (N.Y.) at Delaware mini-stadium. That game will be held this Thursday at 7 p.m. as well.

Contact Union digital editor Kerith Gabriel at kgabriel@philadelphiaunion.com