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  • Writer's pictureSriram Chidambaram

Greatest NCAA D3 Tournament Games of the 22' Season (that I watched): North Central vs UW Superior

The first two rounds of the 2022 national tournament took place last weekend at regional campus-sites around the country and I tuned in to some of the streams to catch a glimpse of some thrilling win-or-go-home tournament soccer. Here are some of those incredible games.

UW Superior's Josh Bellamy (middle) taking on North Central's Johnny Kraemer (right) in their NCAA tournament first round matchup on November 12th 2022.

The first-round matchup between North Central and UW Superior summed up D3 soccer as I know it. The North Central Cardinals came into this game ranked #10 in the nation with a 16 – 0 – 4 record. They had just defeated North Park in the extremely competitive CCIW (The College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin) championship game. That game probably warrants its own blog post, but more on that later. Given how dominant their season was, North Central College was selected to be a regional campus-site and would host their regional pod.

Meanwhile, the travelling UW Superior Yellowjackets were fresh off a comfortable 3-0 win against Bethany Lutheran in the UMAC (Upper Midwest Athletic Conference) Championship game and boasted a 16 – 3 – 2 record. However, they were not even ranked in their region.

It was a frosty night in Naperville, IL and as the game progressed, the field began turning a dull white in the Chicago snowfall. The Cardinals were heavy favorites, as you might have guessed, and they lived up to it by piling on the pressure from the get-go. In the 5th minute, North Central’s Jaziel Enriquez came close to netting the first goal of the game, but the opposing keeper Alex Paredes was equal to it. Eight minutes later, the Cardinals found success off the foot of midfielder Aiden Westerberg, who notched his 10th goal of the season. They nearly doubled their lead in the 23rd minute through a Matteo Innocenti strike but Alex Paredes made another crucial save to keep the Yellowjackets within one. Just a few minutes later, the Yellowjackets made the Cardinals pay for their missed chances as they pulled level through their main talisman, Blake Perry. No one managed to break the deadlock for the remainder of the half and the teams headed into the break, tied one a-piece.

The Cardinals started the second half on the front foot and nearly went ahead just 42 seconds in, but Edoardo Bonifacio’s attempt was well saved by Alex Paredes. As you can tell, Alex Paredes was having an excellent game in goal for the Yellow Jackets and was single-handedly keeping things close.

The game would take an exciting turn in the 74th minute when North Central’s Jack Bonavia received two yellow cards within the span of five minutes, giving the Yellow Jackets a man advantage for the remainder of the game. Twelve minutes later, UW Superior made the Cardinals pay, as their sophomore midfielder Gavin Watkinson slid one past the Cardinals netminder, giving the Yellow Jackets a 2 – 1 lead. With just 4 minutes remaining in regulation time, it appeared as if the Cardinals would bow out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the second year running. However, the Cardinals fought to stay alive, and they were rewarded in the 89th minute when Jaziel Enriquez found the bottom left corner of the Yellow Jackets net and levelled the game at two. It looked like the 10-men Cardinals would cling on and push the game to extra-time.

With about 45 seconds remaining, UW Superior won a corner kick and pushed numbers forward with the hope of scoring the winner in the last play of the game. The corner was cleared at the first post and a devastating North Central counterattack ensued. Jaziel Enriquez, once again, found himself advancing towards the UW Superior net but this time he slid the ball through to freshman Daniel Navarro, who chipped a hapless Paredes to score his second collegiate goal and take the North Central Cardinals to their first ever NCAA tournament victory.

Once the final whistle blew, the emotions could not have been more dissimilar. The Cardinals were celebrating their greatest win in program history, while the Yellowjackets sank to their knees in disbelief. The game had everything - early goals, late goals, red cards, a last gasp comeback, and an underdog story that was not to be. After battling it out in the bitter cold and a snow-covered Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium, the North Central Cardinals would live to see another day. They would host the St. Olaf Ollies, a historically successful D3 men’s soccer team, the next day in Naperville, IL.

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