With 30 minutes to play in Sunday's NCAA Division III quarterfinal soccer match and St. Thomas trailing Redlands (Calif.) 2-0, the webcast announcer remarked, "Can a miracle happen again?"
His reference was to how the Tommies twice in three previous playoff games had scored tying goals with less than three minutes left in regulation, and went on both times to win in two overtimes.
The miracle did happen again on Sunday, but with even more dramatic flair than in the past. St. Thomas scored twice in a nine-minute span to tie the game and then super-sub Tony Kuplic drilled in the game winner with three minutes left in overtime.
The 3-2 victory advances the eighth-ranked Tommies (20-1-3) to the Division III Final Four for the first time in the program's history. They will play unranked Tufts (13-5-2) at 10 a.m. CST on Friday, Dec. 2, in Salem, Va.
No. 16 Calvin (Mich.) (22-2) and unranked Brandeis (Mass.) (13-5-4) will play in the other semifinal. The winners will meet at 12:30 p.m. CST on Saturday, Dec. 3, for the national title.
Heroes abounded against No. 25 Redlands (18-6-2), including Kuplic, whose winning kick was his second goal of the game and fifth goal in four playoff games – and in his career. Shae Bottom tied the game on a penalty kick, and goalie Aidan Hogan made several tough saves.
"Redlands gave us a lot of problems in the first half, and we created our own problems, too," Jon Lowery said about his 100th game as St. Thomas coach. He has a 62-25-13 record in five years. "It took an unbelievable effort by Tony to get the first goal, and then to tie it a few minutes later was just as unbelievable."
Even after Redlands took the 2-0 lead, Lowery felt his team could rally. "The guys were relentless," he said. "We were playing well and we knew we could create opportunities. We just needed to keep pressing. When we scored our first goal, we could feel the momentum shift."
Redlands attacks early
Redlands won its Sweet 16 game against top-ranked and undefeated Chicago on Saturday, 3-2, and dominated early play against St. Thomas. The Bulldogs had a 1-0 lead at halftime and increased it to 2-0 with 30 minutes to go.
The Tommies broke through at the 70:19 mark when Kuplic headed Mark Heydt's long pass by the Redlands goalie. With 11:25 to go, a Redlands player touched the ball in front of the goal after a St. Thomas shot and Bottom buried the penalty kick for the tie.
Redlands kept up the pressure until the end of regulation, with one shot grazing off the St. Thomas crossbar and Hogan diving to smother a ball just as a Bulldog forward arrived.
Heydt and Bottom both had good chances in overtime before a Christian Elliehausen pass found Kuplic and he nailed the kick from 50 feet for the win.
"On the first goal, Mark had a free kick and lofted it toward the box," Kuplic said. "The space around me had cleared out. I was the only person there and just headed it in." The set-up pass from Elliehausen, who scored the late tying goal against Benedictine on Saturday, cleanly reached the left-footed Kuplic, "and I just got a good kick off to win."
Kuplic could be viewed as an unlikely hero. The 6-foot-3 senior was cut from the team as a freshman but decided to give soccer one more try this fall. He made the team during open tryouts but never started or scored and played in only eight games during the regular season.
Then in an opening-round playoff game Nov. 12 against St. Scholastica, he scored the tying goal with 2:49 remaining in regulation and headed in the game winner with 1:57 left in the second overtime. The next day, he scored the second goal in the Tommies' 2-0 win over Luther.
He has taken just eight career shots on goal, with five finding the back of the net for goals.
- The Tommies are 6-0-3 in overtime games this season, including four overtime wins in MIAC and NCAA playoffs. They have a school-record 16 shutouts this year and have outscored opponents 40-11, including 18-4 in the first half.
- Hogan had three saves in net and improved to 13-0-1 on the season.
- This is just the second MIAC men's soccer team to reach the Division III Final Four. Gustavus finished second in 2005.
- This will be St. Thomas' 13th national semifinal team this decade from eight different sports. The others since 2011 have been men's basketball (three times), football (three times), baseball (twice) and volleyball, women's basketball, women's hockey and softball.
- Over the last nine seasons, St. Thomas has had top-5 NCAA team finishes in 14 different sports.
- UST is 10-1 in games on his career when Elliehausen scores a goal or assist.