To say the Big East Blue Division is deep would be an understatement. Now imagine trying to emerge from that group on top, as Marquette hopes to do this week.
All teams have two games left in the Big East, with the impressive Golden Eagles (14-1-0) aiming to grab a second straight regular season division title after putting together a surprising run in 2011.
However, that goal is far from easy. The two games left for the Golden Eagles, at home and on the road, are against #7 Notre Dame on Wednesday and Saturday.
“Rather than look at our situation from a negative, and say oh man, we’ve got the hardest draw,’ I’m looking at it like this: we’re still in it,” Marquette head coach Louis Bennett told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “What a great spectacle, and what a great statement about the Big East Blue Division, that we can be playing for a championship, and it’s all going to come down to this last week. We’re competing against teams for that championship that are all in the top 10 of the national poll.”
Last season, the Golden Eagles put together an impressive conference showing to capture the Big East title after an up and down non-conference start to the season. This year, a stout defense combined with some timely scoring helped the team start off hot, as Marquette rattled off 12 straight wins before losing 2-1 on the road on October 13 against Georgetown.
According to Bennett, last year’s success has fed into this year’s run.
“We came into the season with people returning that had a positive experience and record,” he said. “They didn’t know too much about losing, they knew more about winning, especially in the Big East having won the league last year, and upsetting a lot of teams, being the underdog throughout most of the season.
Among those returners includes midfielder Bryan Ciesiulka, a quality player who has helped drive the offense with 4 goals and 7 assists. Andy Huftalin has contributed 9 timely goals off the bench in his senior season, and freshman Axel Sjoberg’s 6-foot-7 frame is hard to miss across the back line, providing a sturdy aerial presence to clear out dangerous balls into the box.
Along with the players themselves, Bennett also cited how influential assistant coaches Steve Bode and Marcelo Santhos have been in the impressive start.
“These two guys, from a technical and a tactical standpoint, knew exactly where we needed to go and what we needed to do,” he said.
Now, down to the final week of the regular season, the race for the division title is up for grabs. Both Marquette and Connecticut are tied for first with 15 points and arguably have a slight edge, over Georgetown and Notre Dame, both sitting on 12 points.
“By their record, by they way they play and who they are, they’re one of the best teams in the country,” Bennett said. “So to have to play them twice to win a [division] championship, obviously that provides a huge challenge.”
It won’t be until the end of the week that Marquette learns their schedule for the conference tournament, whether that’s another division title or a first round game (a top two finish would secure a bye into the quarterfinal). Bennett hesitated to look beyond the first meeting with Notre Dame this week, but he admitted that competing in this conference has his team well prepared for postseason play.
“I’m reluctant to look further than Wednesday,” he said. “That is something that we’ve enforced on this season…But I think that what the Big East has done is equip has to have the experience and the knowledge of different teams that we’re going to play [down the road].”