Seven games into the season, the Brandeis University men’s soccer team was in an unfamiliar position. The Judges started the season with three straight wins but followed it with two overtime losses and a draw; they then watched a 4-1 lead slip away against Wheaton College, eventually losing 5-4, again in overtime.
Head coach Mike Coven (in his 44th season at the helm) took the players to the back field with every intention of forcing his team to run off a bad loss. Instead, according to senior midfielder Josh Ocel, the longtime coach simply looked at his team with disgust and sent the players home.
Ocel explained, “[He}was just going to run us and was just like, ‘you know what, I don’t even want to see you guys anymore.’ That hurt a lot because our coach means a lot to us.”
In the following game, Brandeis drew 1-1 with Carnegie Mellon (Ocel had the lone goal for the Judges) dropping its record to an uncharacteristic 3-3-2. The players held a team meeting after the draw to iron out the problems, right the ship, and turn things around. Since that game, Brandeis has gone 10-2-2 and with a 4-2 victory over Rutgers University – Newark has now booked a place in the Div. III Final Four for the fourth time in program history.
“I think all that adversity we went through…we just want to win so badly,” said Ocel about the Judges postseason run. “I think that’s the strength of our team, we just play for each other. I know the kid next to me is always going to be battling for me and that makes me work so much harder too.”
When asked if those early season defeats have played a part in Brandeis reaching the Final Four, Ocel replied, “This year we’ve been knocked on the chin a few more times and during the tournament it’s helped us because we know what it feels like to lose.”
The turn around in the team’s fortunes culminated with a thrilling road win at Amherst College on Nov. 19. The Judges defeated the defending national champions 3-1 on penalties after the teams finished two overtimes tied at 1-1. The following day, Ocel had a goal and two assists in a comprehensive Elite Eight win to book a place in this weekend’s Final Four in Salem, Va.
“Walking off the Amherst field, I felt I was still in a dream for a while,” said Ocel. “My brother ended his career there, some of my best friends who were seniors ended their careers there. I didn’t want the kids this year to walk off the field feeling the same way.”
Ocel was speaking on Tuesday night, shortly after the Judges’ final practice in Waltham before the ride down to Virginia. Reaching the Final Four started off as surreal but it was starting to become more tangible with the trip right around the corner. “Since we’re leaving tomorrow it’s starting to feel like it’s really happening,” he said. “We have a chance to win a national championship.”
It was always the goal for Ocel to try and bring the elusive trophy to Brandeis. After two years at North Attleboro, he transferred to Worcester Academy to further his education. He was playing for the NEFC team in the summer and decided to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Sam, a former Rocketeer as well, by playing at Brandeis.
He would also follow his brother by being a success on the pitch for the Judges. The brothers are only the second pair of siblings in school history to be named All-Americans (Sam as a third team selection in 2013 and Josh as a second team selection last season) and Josh is well on his way to a third straight NSCAA Div. III All-New England honor as well.
With his four-point game against Rutgers – Newark, Ocel notched his 15th assist of the season, which moves him one away from the single season school record of 16 that was set by Tibor Kobolak in 1986. In addition, he moved into second place with his 34th career assist, which is 10 behind the record set by Rob Muller in 1977.
“I couldn’t do it without my teammates,” Ocel said. “They’re always by my side and I’ve played with great players my whole career. The coaches put me in a position to be successful and as a soccer player that’s so important.”
He was quick to point out that the individual achievements have been dwarfed by the team’s success. “I’ve had a lot of individual success in my career,” Ocel reflected, “but winning that Elite Eight game….nothing has felt so good in my life. That was the best moment of my soccer career by far.”
There may be even bigger moments to come this weekend. Brandeis will face Calvin College (Grand Rapids, Mich.) on Friday afternoon at 1:30. Win that game and the Judges would play for the national title the following day with a possible rematch against rival (and 2014 national champion) Tufts.
Ocel admitted that he relishes the potential of playing the Jumbos again, but he is not looking past Calvin. He said, “We’ve watched a little bit of film on them and I know they like to keep the ball on the ground. They’re a really good team.”
Asked how the Judges are preparing for the matchup, Ocel said, “As a team, we try to focus on ourselves and trying to put a performance together. We know if we go out and play the way we can that we’ll come off with the result.”
In order to succeed on Friday afternoon, Brandeis will have to ignore the distractions of a busy weekend. The players will take part in community service and a banquet in the two days leading up the semifinal. Ocel shrugged off concerns about the schedule and believed his team would stay focused on the task at hand – trying to win the program’s first national title since 1976,
Even in the midst of all the pressure of playing on such a big stage, Ocel is also having fun extending his collegiate career as long as possible.
“We know we’re one of only four teams in Div. III still playing and practicing every day and I’m definitely taking advantage of it,” he said. “It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I’m going to make sure to take lots of pictures and cherish the moment.”
A live stream of the national semifinal between Brandeis and Calvin will be available at http://www.ncaa.com/sports/soccer-men/d3.
In addition to Josh Ocel, former King Philip standout Andrew Allen is also on the Brandeis roster. The sophomore forward has started 17 of the 22 games he has played this season, scoring four goals (including two game-winners) and recording three assists. He has started each of the Judges’ games in the tournament.