NCAA Men’s Soccer: Amherst College readies for Div. 3 Final Four bout with Chicago

  • Amherst College’s German Giammattei carries the ball during action earlier this season. The Mammoths will play the University of Chicago Friday night in the NCAA Division III Final Four in Greensboro, N.C. PHOTO BY JON ENDOW

  • Amherst College goalie Kofi Hope-Gund takes a goal kick during action earlier this season. The Mammoths will play the University of Chicago Friday night in the NCAA Division III Final Four in Greensboro, N.C. PHOTO BY BRIAN FOLEY

Staff Writer
Published: 12/1/2021 3:53:49 PM

Ask Amherst College men’s soccer coach Justin Serpone how this season has gone so far, and he’ll tell you that he feels more like an actor starring in his own version of a hit TV show than just a typical soccer coach.

“I feel like I'm in ‘The Truman Show,’ right? Like, what an absurd experience to be around such amazing people and players,” Serpone said. “Day in and day out, I come to the office (and) can't believe that this is my job." 

But unlike protagonist Truman Burbank in the popular 1998 film, Serpone’s life is actually reality, and it’s no lie that his team is going to their second consecutive NCAA Division III Final Four appearance. The 16-2-2 Mammoths were the runners-up back in 2019, falling to eventual champion Tufts University in the title match, and they’re determined to come back and take it all this season.

Amherst will tangle with the University of Chicago in the national semifinals on Friday at 7:45 p.m. in Greensboro, N.C. The other semifinal pits Connecticut College against Washington and Lee University at 5 p.m.

“I felt all the emotion and frustration of losing that last game (in 2019) from my teammates,” Amherst keeper Kofi Hope-Gund said. “I know that… the hunger to not only get back there and win on Friday and get us back to the championship, but to right the wrong (of) not bringing it all home in 2019 is going to bring a lot of passion and energy from all the guys.”

It’s not a place that many outside the team predicted the Mammoths to be. Although Amherst made it all the way to the title game in 2019, the final United Soccer Coaches Top 25 ranking had Amherst 19th overall heading into this year’s playoffs, and an early season loss to Bowdoin left the team out of the rankings entirely the first couple of weeks.

“I think we've got a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. You lose one game, all of a sudden you're out of the top 25 and everyone forgot about you,” Serpone said. “A little bit of that is tongue in cheek, but I do think it's a healthy thing for any team. It's a healthy thing for any person to have to continually feel like they've got to prove themselves.”

If anything, the unexpected loss lit a fire under the team, and gave them the motivation to raise their compete level for the remainder of the season.

“The Bowdoin loss could have led us down two different paths,” Hope-Gund said. “One of the paths could have been giving up and saying, ‘Hey, we haven't lost to Bowdoin in five years, this could be the start of the worst season of our careers.’ And then the other route, which we took, was, ‘hey, let's learn from this. Let's not let it happen again.’”

For those who have been watching the squad this year, it's clear that they're a serious contender. The Mammoths finished the season by allowing the fewest goals in Division III, tying with Middlebury in letting just seven goals get by their netminders. They’ve allowed just one goal in their last eight contests, outscoring opponents 19-1. Not only have been they keeping the ball out of the net, they’ve been preventing their opponents from getting very many opportunities, needing to make just 41 saves all year.

That defensive prowess is a group effort from the team. It’s not just the keeper in net and Amherst’s back line, comprised entirely of seniors, who make up the stingy defense, but also the team's midfielders and forwards applying constant pressure each and every game.

“We pride ourselves in not conceding goals more than scoring,” forward German Giammattei said. “The main focus for us as forwards is to not give their backs any time to play any long balls, or just dribble out the back. So if we can do our part, then we know the guys behind us will help us, and they're always there.”

The team has already racked up a number of individual accolades – Giammattei, who won both NESCAC Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year in 2019, earned NESCAC first team honors and was also named first-team All-Region this season. Bryce Johnson and Ada Okorogheye were both named to the 2021 NESCAC second team, and Johnson also earned All-Region second team honors. Teammates Inacio Cubedu and Alex Shahmirzadi both earned spots on the All-Region third-team.

Now, all that’s left is the team title. Amherst is the only school returning to the Final Four in 2021 (the tournament was not held in 2020), and they're back with a vengeance.

“While we're happy that we're going back, we're not content with just making the Final Four,” Johnson said. 

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