SANTA BARBARA, Caif. — The 2018 men’s College Cup was determined by a set of fouls.
The first, and most important, came in the 10th minute of the second half. A Maryland forward was dragged down in the corner of the box, and the referee whistled for a penalty kick. Amar Sejdic stepped up for the Terps, as he had all season. A senior captain, Sejdic led his team in goals and scored a penalty kick to decide the Big 10 tournament.
Sunday night, he decided the NCAA national championship.
With a slight shimmy, he nailed a strike directly at keeper Ben Lundt, who guessed wrong and dove to the left. The ball smacked the net where Lundt had just been standing. Canisters of smoke positioned behind the goal exploded, blasting white fog high into the air as Sejdic wheeled his arms and ran to celebrate with his bench.
Despite taking time to warm up, Maryland stayed alive with Sejdic’s penalty score to claim a 1-0 victory over Akron in the Men’s College Cup for the program’s fourth national title.
“Wow, that sounds great,” Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski said as his team was introduced as the national champions. “We’ve talked about this being a big moment for our program, a good story in overcoming adversity. They were challenged, they were pushed, they were hardened by an incredible schedule. They’re jewels. They’re like a diamond that has been hardened by an incredible schedule.”
The Terps did not cede a single goal in the College Cup tournament, keeping its clean sheet while scoring a goal in every game, including the final. It was a moment of redemption for the team, which opened the season 4-5-3 and then battled to a 12-6-4 finish.
Akron stole all of the momentum to start the first half of Sunday’s final, forcing Maryland onto its heels as it dominated on offense. The Zips peppered the Maryland defense, taking three shots and placing one on frame in the first half, but the Terps defense fended off the fervent attack.
“We have a saying to be ‘Terrapin Tough,’ and we followed that,” Maryland defender Donovan Pines said. “There was a confidence about us that nothing would get past us.”
The Zips weren’t able to convert possession into points and as they continued to falter on the attack, Maryland began to wake up. The Terps forced keeper Ben Lundt to make all three of his first-half saves in the final 15 minutes of the period, finding openings in the box to apply pressure.
With five minutes remaining in the first period, forward DJ Reeves stepped over the ball beat his defender in the box, drilling the ball low. But Lundt dove to snatch away the Terps’ best chance on goal of the half. With Maryland continuing to attack all the way up to the final buzzer, the Zips hunkered down in their defensive third to ride out the half.
A tripping penalty in the corner of the box early in the second half gave the Terps the spark they needed — Sejdic’s penalty kick. The goal marked his eighth of the season, giving the team a 1-0 lead. But more than 30 minutes still remained in the half, leaving plenty of room for the Zips to respond.
Both teams settled into a back-and-forth rhythm, with limited action on either goal, but as the clock began to dwindle, Akron became more desperate. A series of shots in the 30th minute of the half sent Maryland keeper Dayne St. Clair diving to the ground and scrambling back to bat away rebounds. When he finally emerged with the ball in his arms, fans on both sides of the field rose to their feet to cheer.
Maryland countered quickly, streaking the opposite way to slip into the box and force Lundt to pick up a yellow card as he dove to kick the ball away. Sejdic stepped to the line again for the Terps, stuttering and faking a step before the shot. But this time, Lundt guessed correctly, diving to his right to bat away the shot and scoop up the rebound. Lundt finished the game with seven saves, earning the Defensive Player of the Tournament distinction.
“Unfortunately, I was not able to bail my team out,” Lundt said. “I was only able to bail myself out. It would be a lot happier if we had won.”
The Zips’ final efforts came to a stall with 10 minutes left in the game. Scrambling back on defense, Carlo Ritaccio tripped up a Maryland player at the top of the box, earning a red card. Stripping the Zips down to 10 men on the field, the foul served as the final dagger that Maryland needed to clinch the one-goal lead and the College Cup.
“This has been the epitome of Maryland soccer re-established and re-identified,” Cirovski said. “To be the last team to finish smiling is the happiest I could possibly be.”