KEENE, N.H. 10/29/09 - Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, the Little East Conference playoff picture is as clear as a car windshield after going through a large, muddy puddle.
However, if you're a Keene State fall fan the picture is very transparent. Heading into this weekend, this is what we know: Both women's soccer and volleyball teams tournament status are set. The KSC women's soccer team (11-5-2, 5-0-1 LEC) has already clinched the top seed in the tournament. They will get a first-round bye and host a semifinal game on Tuesday at 6 p.m. The Owl volleyball team (16-15, 4-2 LEC) will be the fourth seed in the tournament and host a quarterfinal match at Spaulding Gym on Tuesday (6 p.m.).
The scenario for both KSC field hockey and men's soccer is simple, win on Saturday and secure the top seed. Regardless of Saturday's outcome, both teams are in the tournament. However, a lose scrambles the picture, taking away the top-seed and much-coveted home field advantage in later rounds.
Shooting for its sixth straight LEC tournament title, the Keene State field hockey team (14-4, 8-2 LEC) must get by UMass-Dartmouth (11-5, 9-1 LEC) on Saturday to secure the top seed. Both teams' warm-up for the showdown with non-conference games on Thursday. KSC players know what's at stake on Saturday.
"We're using every play, practice, and game between now and then to get ready," said senior goalie Vikki Stoessel. "There's a lot at stake and we're going to do our best to make sure the ball bounces our way."
"We have to come out with a lot of intensity, but we also need to have fun," said senior Carly Benning, who leads the LEC with 19 goals. "The more we have fun, the more we play as a team and the better we do."
Unlike past years when the Owls had nailed down the top seed earlier, this season has been more challenging for Coach Amy Watson's squad. "The conference is stronger this season," she said. "No one feels like anything is a sure thing this year."
The Owls have history on their side. Keene State owns a dominating 15-1 series advantage against UMass-Dartmouth in LEC play, outscoring the Corsairs 47-9 during that span. The Corsairs' lone win (3-1) came last season in North Dartmouth. The two teams met in the 2006 conference finals with the Owls winning 2-1.
If the Keene State men's soccer team (12-6, 5-1 LEC) hopes to clinch the top seed in the LEC tournament, it must do it on the road at Southern Maine (7-8-2, 2-3-1 LEC) on Saturday. Fighting for its own tournament life, USM must also win to extend their season.
After accumulating a 9-0-1 record in LEC play against USM from 1997-2006, the Owls have lost two of their three meetings against the Huskies. Both losses, a 1-0 setback in 2007 and a shocking 5-0 defeat last fall, took place in Gorham.
"For some reason, we always seem to struggle up there," said KSC Coach Ron Butcher. "It's a small field and not an easy place to play."
Regardless of the location, Butcher feels his young Owls will get the job done. Leading up to the game, the Owl coaching staff has been harping on one message: "You've gotten this far, don't let it slip away."
Winners of five Little East tournament crowns, Keene State has had a reversal of fortune of the soccer field this fall. After going 6-10-3 (2-4-1 LEC) in 2007 and missing the LEC tournament for the first time, the Owls have bounced back with this year's successful season.
"It's nice to be knocking at the door after not being a part of the show last season," said Butcher.
Asked to explain his teams' turnaround, Butcher used two words: talent and speed. "We brought in a lot of freshmen and six are starting he said. "They've made a huge difference. Last year, we had no speed and this year we have speed and quickness."
Butcher hopes his teams' talent and speed with be the difference on Saturday.