Sometimes, all it takes is one kick to capture a Big East regular season title.
Nelson Becerra assumed his role as St. John’s free kick specialist in the 51st minute of the nationally televised game against Cincinnati on Friday. The junior midfielder curved the direct kick from 35 yards out straight into the Bearcat net, the eventual game-winner in a 2-0 victory at Belson Stadium.
After a Trevor Chiduku insurance marker in the 75th, the Red Storm celebrated its first regular season title since 2003.”It’s great for the guys,” head coach Dave Masur said. “They really made it a focal point to try and do well and win the league. It’s a tough league as you go and for us, it’s been a while since we won a regular season.”
Masur said it has become easier to trust Becerra with the set pieces in big spots thanks to his increased focus in the second half of the season. The goal was his sixth of the season for the 13-1-3 Red Storm.
“It’s been a learning process with Nelson,” Masur said. “We have a lot of different guys that can take free kicks. Nelson’s been concentrating very hard and is determined to get them right. It’s really made a difference for the team.”
Not long after Becerra notched his team-leading sixth goal, Chiduku kept up with his teammate’s pace and scored his sixth of the season. A Ryan Soroka cross was deflected off the goal line by a Bearcat defender and Chiduku was in the right place – a recurring theme for the sophomore forward this season – to volley home the Storm’s second goal of the night under the television lights.
Becerra dismissed the notion of a domestic rivalry after the game.
“Whoever scores, it doesn’t matter,” Becerra said. “It’s for the team; it’s not a little battle going on in there.”Prior to the match, three St. John’s players were honored for Senior Night. 2008 marks the final seasons for Rory Quinn, Neal Kitson and Ben Mallue. While Kitson recorded three saves to lock up his 11th shutout of the season, three shy of former-Johnnie Jason Landers’ single-season record, Quinn and Mallue came off the bench to contribute in their final regular season home game.
But on the night when St. John’s hoisted their Big East hardware, Masur gave a great deal of credit to a junior who hasn’t played since mid-September.
“Adam [Himeno] was a big contributor to this team,” Masur said of the forward, who scored three goals and wore a captain’s armband before a season-ending foot fracture. “His effort in the summer, his effort in the spring, the way he models the behavior, he’s unbelievable. He deserves a special credit for this championship. He’s every bit a part of this as anybody.”
St. John’s struggled to get the offense going early in the game. Kitson and the defense, namely Ben Clack and Joel Gustafsson, worked hard in the first half to keep the game at a scoreless tie. Eventually, the attack started connecting with one-touch passes and through-balls, and the chances on goal increased.Tadeu Terra and defender Connor Lade added shots on goal in the second half and the Red Storm outshot the Bearcats 10-7 overall.
St. John’s will conclude their regular season on Monday night when they make up the snowed out Rutgers game in New Jersey. With the top spot in the Big East Red Division, the Storm have earned a first-round bye in the Big East Tournament. The team’s first playoff game will be played at home on Nov. 8.