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Big East Champs

A first for men’s soccer since 1991.

By Shawn Fury

If the world had been completely normal, the Seton Hall men’s soccer team’s 2021 spring season would have still qualified as a historic success. The Pirates captured memorable regular season victories like their two wins over St. John’s. They won the school’s first BIG EAST title since 1991 with a heart-stopping 2-1 triumph over No. 2-ranked Georgetown. They defeated Air Force and Virginia Tech in dramatic fashion in the NCAA Tournament to advance to the national quarterfinals for the first time since 1988.

Of course, nothing was normal about the season, starting with the fact it was supposed to take place in the fall of 2020 instead of the spring of 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic forced that change, like it altered everything. Several players came down with the coronavirus, and due to travel restrictions, many Pirates struggled to get from their homes overseas back to the United States before the season began. Put it all together, and it’s no wonder Seton Hall’s title-winning campaign proved life-altering for the players and coaches who made it happen and unforgettable for everyone who followed along.

A few months following the season, Seton Hall coach Andreas Lindberg reflected on why it meant so much to so many. He mentioned Jimmy O’Donnell, the senior associate athletics director for team operations at Seton Hall and the sport administrator for the soccer team, who’s been with the school for more than 30 years.

Lindberg remembered O’Donnell being “extremely emotional after the BIG EAST final” and how one Pirate player talked about sharing a “big embrace with Jimmy, and Jimmy was crying and it’s like that’s when we realized how big this was — not just for the players on the team but everybody on campus. It was a really beautiful moment. We’re a small community and having everybody cheer for each other and everyone supporting us, it was a really cool experience.”

Seton Hall star CJ Tibbling added, “It’s been a tough, tough period for everyone, and to be able to bring some form of joy to the school, we were happy we could do that and make that contribution.” Tibbling played a central role in Seton Hall’s ascension, although he experienced some of the challenges that confronted many of his teammates. He contracted COVID-19 and then struggled getting back to the States from Sweden before the scheduled kick-off in February. But once the team got settled, Tibbling excelled in the biggest moments. He scored the game-winning goal against Georgetown in the BIG EAST title game and followed that up by notching the game winner against Air Force in the Pirates’ first game in the NCAA Tournament. One game later, he added a successful penalty kick as the Pirates outlasted Virginia Tech, a victory sealed by goalie Andreas Nota, who delivered the clinching penalty kick just moments after successfully stopping two of them in net.

Tibbling sensed early on that the season could prove special, believing the team “came closer together” over the fall semester, even though the season got postponed. “We felt pretty confident once the season started, but there was still a lot of uncertainty, so many factors in play, like if we had a COVID-19 case, you’re not going to play and you’re going to get out of rhythm. … And there were a few new additions going straight into the lineup and it felt like they would be the finishing touch for us.”

The 10-2-4 Pirates received contributions from everyone. Tibbling, a second-team All-America selection, led the Pirates with seven goals while JP Marin had three goals and five assists. Maurice Williams chipped in four goals and was named BIG EAST Championship Most Outstanding Defensive Player. With five points in the tournament, Mattias Sundell was named Most Outstanding Offensive Player. In the first game against St. John’s, a crucial game cited by both Lindberg and Tibbling, Paavo Riihijarvi provided the winning goal in the 1-0 triumph. Centerback Luca Dahn was the anchor for a defense that allowed only 11 goals all season long and was named second-team All-America. And when he wasn’t winning games with a penalty kick, Nota proved stellar in goal with 42 saves while going 9-2-3.

The Pirates’ magical ride ended with a 2-0 loss in the national quarterfinals to Indiana. “Playoff games and the game of soccer, there’s a small margin for error,” Lindberg said. “We were a bit disappointed, but I think we can use that going forward and try to continue to play at that level. … I’ll back my guys up against anybody.”

Tibbling, a senior, echoed those sentiments. “I think we will come back even stronger this year. Last season it literally felt like the stars aligned for us. We had those 50-50 moments going our way. So you never know what might happen, but I have a good feeling going into this last season of mine.”

And if it’s anything like the spring of 2021, all of Seton Hall will experience a thrilling ride.

Shawn Fury is an author in New York City.

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