LAWRENCEVILLE — The Georgia Gwinnett College men and women begin defense of their Association of Independent Associations’ soccer titles Friday on home turf.
The men head into the postseason on a three-game winning streak, their longest of the season. The Grizzlies (9-4-3) have outscored the opposition 12-3 over that span.
“Everything just started to click,” head coach Steve DeCou said. “We played a top-10 strength of schedule. We battled some injuries. We battled some guys getting eligible late. We battled finding our identity.
“It hasn’t been the easiest of seasons. Being an independent, you have to take the games that are out there. It took us a while to get ourselves going, but when we could have thrown in the towel, we kept battling. I’m really pleased with the kids.”
Toni Tiente leads the team with seven goals and 20 points. Krishna Clarke has five goals and 13 points, while Brookwood grad Alfredo Rivera has contributed four goals and 12 points for the Grizzlies. Emmanuel Olusanya also has scored four times.
Goalkeeper Matija Gligorovic has started 15 of the GGC’s 16 games and has a 1.30 goals-against average.
“(The offense) is probably the part of the team that came on most in the last month,” DeCou said. “The defense has always been there. The question was, where were the goals going to come from?
“Toni really stepped up. So did Krishna and Alfredo. (Oscar Sommerkamp) struggled at the start of the season and came on strong.”
Sommercamp had all three goals in the 3-2 win over Pensacola that started the Grizzlies’ winning streak.
“To start the year, it was goal scoring by committee,” DeCou said. “We’ve got it down to three or four guys who put the team on their back.
“We’re learning how to deal with adversity. We’re always playing a top-10 schedule so we get people’s best efforts. We’ve done a good job dealing with it. I like the tenacity of this group.”
They open the tournament against Lincoln (Ill.) at 5 p.m. Friday in Lawrenceville. The teams have never previously met and it’s Lincoln’s first full year of playoff eligibility.
“They are extremely athletic on the wings and similar to us in the way they want to attack,” DeCou said.
The other semifinal features Bellevue (Neb.) and Waldorf (Iowa) at 8 p.m. The championship is Saturday.
GGC has played both of those teams in the past.
“But the question is, what are they going to do?” DeCou said. “We’ve seen teams do things differently against us (than they showed in film). Can we adapt? Last year, Waldorf packed it in and hit us on the counter attack. The last few teams we’ve played did that, too. We’ve got that preparation.
“It’s tough when you have a season like we did, but then again, we’re prepared once we hit playoffs.”
The GGC women are two-time A.I.I. defending champs.
They capped the regular season with a 5-0 road loss to Martin Methodist College (Tenn.) in a matchup of nationally ranked teams. The No. 12 Grizzlies lost for the first time in six matches to finish with a 12-5-1 record. The five goals were a season high for an opponent.
“It was just so out of character,” head coach Mike Giuliano said. “There was no reason to think it would be anything other than close.
“We went the month of October without giving up a goal and then turn around, against a very good side, and to be completely dominated was very frustrating. I hope we understand how that happened. But we’ll see Friday.”
The Grizzlies play Washington Adventist (Md.) in the A.I.I. tournament at 11 a.m. Friday in Lawrenceville. GGC won the only previous meeting between the schools 6-0 on Nov. 9 last year in the tournament.
The other semifinal is Bellevue (Neb.) vs. Viterbo (Wis.) at 2 p.m. The championship match is Saturday at either 4 or 7 p.m.
“We’re in a conference that is national in scope so we often draw teams we know very little about,” Giuliano said. “We only know last year. But we know they have a goal-scorer with 17 goals and that’s always impressive at the college level.
“We’ve been talking a lot less about what our opponent does (over the last six weeks) and a lot more about what we do.”
Joy Mertzig’s 13 goals and 28 points lead the team. Jenny Stadin has six goals and five assists for 17 points, while Kyara Armenta has kicked in four goals with two assists for 10 points.
Senior goalies Sophie Hoare and Elisa Randel have combined for a 1.14 GAA this season.
At the start of the season, Giuliano didn’t know what to expect from a roster with 17 freshmen.
“We turned out not to be terribly strong offensively,” he said. “Even big wins like (No. 5) Lindsey (Wilson) were 1-0. Instead of crying in our milk, we decided to make being the most fearsome defense our priority. We are becoming a really hard team to play.
“It’s really based on how important, in life and in sport, it is to control what you can control. Having said that, as we go into playoffs, if we can’t find a way to score more goals, it would be a short run. We’re addressing that. We’re going to take some risks and see.”