Photos courtesy of Elyse Raby/The Mirror
Throughout the country, fall football is a campus ritual. College students gather to show their school pride at football games, cheering on their fellow students. The same holds true at Fairfield University, but instead of watching a game of pigskin football, it is European football -- or soccer -- that is king.
When the leaves start turning at Fairfield University, athletic passions turn to football -- the original version, that is.
Almost a year has passed since an opposing team has scored a goal against Fairfield at Lessing Field, the Stags home soccer field. The Stags have not lost at home since Oct. 20 of last year, when Loyola came in and upset them, knocking Fairfield from its No. 15 national ranking.
The Stags (7-3-2, 2-1-1 MAAC) have shut down every team that has made the trip to Fairfield since then, including two shutout victories in the MAAC Tournament over Loyola and Siena, and boast a 6-0-2 record at home since that loss. Both ties came this season, against Hartwick and St. Peter's. Fairfield threw a shutout against both, but the Stags were also held without a goal.
Fairfield kicked off its MAAC season with two home games against Manhattan and St. Peter's. Against Manhattan on Friday the Stags picked up a 3-0 victory, while they tied St. Peter's 0-0 on Sunday.
"I am very proud with our play over the weekend," head coach Carl Rees said at the time. "They played just once [St. Peter's] and we played two [games] without four starters. That called on our character as a team and the lads delivered with a win Friday and a tie against a 7-2 team today."
Fairfield was without two starters -- freshman forward Todd Rutledge and senior goalkeeper J.P. Francini -- for the entire game. Francini was replaced with sophomore Matt Cleveland, who made the first start of his career. Sophomore midfielder David Piedrahita tried to play, but left the game mid-way through the first half.
Cleveland, who has played in three games so far this season and has not allowed a goal, stepped up when called upon and recorded six saves against St. Peter's to earn his first shutout.
Against Manhattan, Cleveland entered the game in relief of Francini, after the Stags starter injured his right hand in a collision, and had five saves in the second half to earn his first career victory.
"Matt provided us with a strong effort this weekend," Rees said. "He has a good goalkeeping resume. He showed patience today, which allowed him to put together a solid game. He kicked well and distributed well, and gave us a lift defensively today."
Fairfield continued its offensive struggles in its first half against Manhattan, entering the game with no goals scored in its past two games. The Stags did not record a shot in the first half, while Manhattan unleashed three shots, with Francini coming up with one save.
The Stags exploded offensively in the second half, with seven shots and three goals to pick up the victory.
Senior Tom Skara (shown heading the ball) is one of four backs that make up a solid defensive force for the Stags.
The Stags game against St. Peter's was an important match-up for them as the Peacocks were picked to finish third in the MAAC.
Fairfield was banged up after a physical match-up against Manhattan, while St. Peter's did not play a game on Friday. Without Francini, named goalkeeper on the All-MAAC preseason team, the Stags had to rely more on their solid back four of Clements, seniors Tom Skara and Pat Kelly, and freshman Jack Cleverly.
The defense came up big against the MAAC's second-best offensive team, which scores 1.40 goals per game, shutting the Peacocks down for two halves and two 10-minute overtime periods.
"The team came together brilliantly, the back four was solid as always, the midfield played better than they have most of the time this season and everyone worked hard," said senior Sam Bailey, another preseason All-MAAC selection. "We were definitely the team more likely to score a goal."
Fairfield suffered its second setback of the MAAC season at Loyola in Maryland, against one of the top teams in the North Atlantic region. The Stags held off the Greyhounds attack until the second half, when Loyola converted on two goals to take a 2-0 lead they would prove to hold up.
The Stags bounced back with their second MAAC win of the season -- a 1-0 shutout of Rider in New Jersey. Fairfield's lone goal was scored by Bailey; his fifth game-winner of the season.
"Our progress so far is typical of our past seasons. We have a solid foundation, solid defense," said Rees. "The building blocks are there, we could use more quality in attacking, but it is good that we are looking at the little things."
Tom Cleary is the sports editor for The Mirror, Fairfield University's independent student newspaper.