The University of Kentucky men’s soccer team once again saw its NCAA Tournament hopes dashed in the first round Thursday in Lexington as Drake defeated the Cats 2-1 behind James Grunert’s header in the 74th minute.
With the win, Drake advances to face No. 12 Creighton in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky falls to 1-7-2 all-time in postseason play and has now lost two consecutive first-round tournament games.
Down four players, three to injury (Napo Matsoso, Stefan Stojkovic, Jordan Wilson) and one to a red card (Tanner Hummer), Kentucky’s depleted roster struggled to contain the waves of attacks from a Drake squad that won three straight to claim the Missouri Valley Conference title.
The Wildcats’ inability to sustain an attack resulted in a Drake goal to open the scoring in the 18th minute.
“I thought the guys battled,” Coach Johan Cedergren said. “The guys that we had healthy, they fought. They hung in there. It was a pretty even game, but in the end they punished us.”
Though Drake recorded seven shots to Kentucky’s zero through the 17th minute, the Wildcats’ back line refused to break. It was, however, the eighth shot that ultimately broke Kentucky’s line. Drake jumped ahead off a corner rebound from defender Alec Bartlett that squirted past Kentucky goalkeeper Callum Irving.
Despite the early hole and a neutered offense, Kentucky needed less than two minutes to respond in kind.
On its first shot of the game, Kentucky’s midfielder Kevin Barajas headed in a Kristoffer Tollefsen corner kick that evened the game at one-all. The goal came at a time when the sparse crowd of Kentucky faithful wondered whether the Wildcats would be able to mount a rally against the Bulldogs.
Kentucky, however, settled down in the waning minutes of the first half despite Drake outshooting the Wildcats 11-1. The play of the half came off the foot of Kentucky’s defender Alex Bumpus during the third minute of the match. His desperation block of Grunert’s shot just feet from the box saved an easy Drake goal.
The second half for Kentucky proved to be a repeat of the first, however, the Wildcats were unable to respond as the Bulldogs continued to press and eventually broke through for the game-winning goal.
“It’s tough in knockout tournaments,” Cedergren said. “One mistake and all of a sudden your season is over, but you can’t forget the kind of season these guys have had. We won the conference outright, undefeated, only gave up one goal and I think for us now the challenge is how can we do this next year?”
The Wildcats’ season came to an abrupt end after Kentucky struggled to respond following Grunert’s wide-open header in the dying minutes of the match. The loss ends the careers of 2015 Conference USA Player of the Year, Callum Irving, and the heralded Kristoffer Tollefsen.
“I love this place,” Irving said. “I found my place here, and I found my home. It’s been unbelievable to be a part of this and see where we’ve built it from and I feel like I’ve had an impact on it. I just feel really lucky to have been here for the past four years. I’ll forever be following Kentucky soccer because they’re my family now.”
With the loss, Kentucky concludes the season 12-5-2 and will head into the off season looking to replace the senior leadership of both Tollefsen and Irving.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Cedergren said. “To continue where they’ve left off.”
Drake 2, Kentucky 1
Goals: Drake: 18’, Alec Bartlett (3 shots, 2 shots on goal)
Kentucky: 19’, Kevin Barajas (1 shot, 1 shot on goal)
Drake: 74’, James Grunert (3 shots, 2 shots on goal)