Flash back to last Saturday, Oct. 31. Men’s soccer goes up 1-0 on Amherst in the quarterfinals of the NESCAC tournament with just 20 minutes left on the clock. Behind the celebrations of the outfield players, goalkeeper Jack Katkavich ’17 digs his cleats into his well-worn six-yard box and claps his massive, gloved hands together, prepared for the final phase of the game. His task, as always, was simple in name, and infinitely more difficult in reality: Keep the ball out of the net behind him. He knew that if he could just hold out for 20 more minutes, his eighth-seeded Cardinals, who limped into the playoffs after a five-game losing streak, would miraculously knock off the top-seeded and undefeated Lord Jeffs. What’s more, this was the same very team that, a week prior, had handed Wesleyan a 5-0 thumping in a game for which Coach Geoff Wheeler elected to leave Katkavich, who was in the throes of a weak run of form, on the bench.
The stars were crossed this Halloween for the Cardinals, who held on for the historic victory. With a few minutes to go, Katkavich sprang to his right to save a goal-bound effort from an Amherst mercenary, preserving the lead. The final whistle blew, and the boys from Middletown advanced to the semi-finals, which will take place this Saturday against second-seeded Middlebury, who will host the remainder of the tournament. The Panthers bested Wesleyan on Jackson Field just under a month ago with a late goal handing them a 2-1 victory.
Ahead of this high-stakes weekend for men’s soccer, The Argus caught up with Katkavich. He’s certainly one of the most interesting (and handsome) men on this campus, but as this is the business end of the season, we kept our conversation focused on the task at hand for him and his brave teammates.
The Argus: Let’s start with the quarterfinals. Take us through the amazing victory.
Jack Katkavich: It was an emotional battle, definitely. We had played them a week before and lost 5-0 in a game where we got really frustrated with the ref, the other coach, the other team, the players and how they were playing. We felt like the result didn’t reflect how good of a team we were. And then going into the game on Saturday we knew we needed to be strong and levelheaded and focus on our game, and that’s really what we did. The first half Amherst definitely had some pressure, but our defense was strong. They didn’t have too many shots from inside the 18; most of them were off of corner kicks and stuff like that, and I felt like our defense played really tight. Then in the second half we really just turned it on. We passed really well and just focused on our game—we didn’t focus on the ref, even though we were out-fouled. We had a gutsy performance from one of our freshmen [Komar Martinez-Paiz]. He tucked a goal away and then we held strong for the last 20.
A: What went through your mind when you guys finally found the back of the old onion bag?
JK: It was relief, honestly, because we’d had a penalty 10 minutes before and we missed it. When we got the penalty, that was when I took a deep breath, I exhaled, and thought “alright, we’re gonna go up on this team.” Seeing that get saved by their keeper was kind of deflating, but it didn’t really affect how we were playing; we kept on pushing forward and it felt like we were gonna score. We were having a lot of offensive possession in their half, and then finally when the ball dropped to [Brandon Sousa ’16], and he laid it off to Komar, we broke through. I had a really good view of it, and I knew it was going in as soon as it left his foot. After that we just knew we had to finish the job and that’s exactly what we did.
A: Take us through your crucial, perhaps season-preserving save in the dying minutes.
JK: They were putting a lot of pressure on late. They threw four or five tall strikers up in our half and they were just pumping the ball into the box. All those guys were buzzing around our 18, but they weren’t really generating anything other than corner kicks. That play started with a corner; they played it short instead of serving it in, but then it got whipped in and blocked, and because we were defending so well and had so many bodies behind the ball there was a wall in front of the net basically so it was really hard for stuff to get through or for me to see over it. I don’t really remember seeing the guy kick it, honestly, but it was from around the 18, and it just came through. I made a nice dive on it, and didn’t want to have a rebound, so I parried it to the end line. Yeah. And I guess it looked pretty good on the video stream.
A: What was it like when the final whistle ultimately came?
JK: It was just overwhelming emotionally, because we understood how much it meant to coach, to the seniors on our team who got another shot to play that day, and to the parents. I stand by the fact that our fans and our parents are the best in the NESCAC. They travel with us so well, and they always show their support, so it was really a victory for them. They even charged the field when the game was over. It was a really cool experience, and to do it at Amherst, having been there a week before when they were cheering ‘we’re gonna win the league, we’re gonna win the league’ and to beat them and make them not win the league, and to shut their fans up and to shut their coach up was amazing. We beat the number one team in the country.
A: What has practice been like this week?
JK: Sunday, the guys who played the bulk of the minutes got together and did a lift and a bike just to get our legs back under us, and the guys who didn’t play as much played some seven on seven. It was some intense stuff, and we got to watch them play. Monday we had the day off, and then yesterday, since we’re playing on the turf up at Middlebury which is a lot faster and a lot bigger, we did a lot of tight stuff where you have to pass to feet because you can’t necessary pass to space on turf because the ball will run. Then we finished with a relay race which got our fitness in and our competitive juices flowing. The rest of the week will be just as intense and we’ll be ready as ever come Saturday.
A: What mindset has the coaching staff been trying to cultivate?
JK: Coach said something great after the game. He said: “We finally got the band back together, and this week’s gonna take some fine-tuning and practicing, because we’ve still got a lot of shows to play.” So the mindset is that we’re gonna play two games this weekend, we’re gonna win two games, and we’re gonna go from there. We feel like we’re one of the better teams in the NESCAC, and that we can beat anyone in the tournament. Obviously we didn’t beat any of the teams in the tournament this season, but we feel like it’s our time to shine. No one’s talking about us. Everyone’s talking about Conn, and Bowdoin, and obviously Middlebury is the favorite, so it’s exciting still because no one’s counting on us, and we have an opportunity to shock the league, and we know what this team is capable, and it’s exciting. It’s a great group of guys to be around, and we have fun every day; every time we get together it’s a good time, but we’re focused on the goal ahead which is to win a NESCAC and move on to the NCAA Tournament.
A: Final question: How are you guys approaching the Middlebury game specifically?
JK: Middlebury’s a team that we’ve played three times in the last two years, so we really know what they’re all about. They have two strikers who are big and talented and athletic. Earlier this year they really only broke down our defense twice and they scored twice, so they’re very opportunistic. They have good offensive weapons, a great keeper and a really solid back four. But again we just have to play our game. Playing on the turf is exciting because it means that we can pass and move the ball quickly. Coach was saying how moving the ball quickly and passing well will tire other teams out, which is something that will really advantage us since we plan on playing two games this weekend. Other than that, we feel like we have a good shot against this team. They’ve had a great season this far—they’ve only got two losses—but we match up well. The past three games against them haven’t gone our way, so it’s really time to get a victory.