By Dylan Butler
In some ways it was like any other Monday afternoon at Acquista Trattoria, as St. John's men's soccer players strolled into their favorite Italian eatery on Union Turnpike, a short walk from the Jamaica campus.
But instead of just coming in to eat pizza and homemade pasta, the Red Storm players, fresh off 1-0 win over the University of Connecticut in the Big East championship game 24 hours earlier, packed into Acquista's to watch the satellite feed of the NCAA selection show.
Thanks to their record sixth conference crown, the Red Storm (14-2-3) earned a first-round bye in the NCAA tournament, which expanded from 32 to 48 teams this year, and will host a three-team mini-region at Adelphi University's Stiles Field in Garden City, L.I.
The eighth-seeded Red Storm will host the winner of Friday's Creighton/University of Massachusetts game Sunday in the Round of 32. Both games kickoff at noon.
“We can go as far as our preperation and focus takes us,” said Red Storm senior midfielder Jeff Matteo. “Just in the last few weeks, the guys have matured so much.”
Hosting the gathering was Carlo Acquista, who was a freshman on the 1996 National Championship team. His younger brother Alessandro is a freshman on this year's squad.
Just below the television overhead where the team watched the selection show, Acquista hung a framed team picture of the 1996 national championship team. During that magical weekend in Richmond, Va. five years ago the Red Storm defeated Creighton University in the semifinal before beating Florida International University in the final.
The Blue Jays, who are making their 10th straight tournament appearance, also made the NCAA title match last year, losing to the University of Connecticut, 2-0.
Creighton (11-8-1) struggled early this season, losing three straight games at one point. But led by Mike Tranchilla, who has 16 goals – including a perfect 5-for-5 on penalty kicks – and nine assists for 41 points, the Blue Jays reeled off five straight wins down the stretch, before losing to No. 1 seeded Southern Methodist University, 2-1, in four overtimes in the Missouri Valley conference championship game.
The University of Massachusetts is making its first tournament appearance after garnering an automatic bid for winning the Atlantic-10 conference tournament. The Minutemen (14-5-1) are led by A-10 Player of the Year Jeff Deren, a sophomore forward who scored 16 goals this year.
“I know we have to not think about anything else, but this is our one shot to win,” said St. John's head coach Dave Masur. “We know coming from the Big East tournament where we had to beat Boston College, Notre Dame and Connecticut, you have to think about one game at a time.”
Six teams from the Big East conference garnered NCAA tournament bids, more than any other conference in the country. Joining St. John's is defending national champion UConn, Rutgers, Notre Dame, Seton Hall and
Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail
at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 143.