Junior Greg Epstein was surprised to find himself running onto Norwich University's soccer field Sunday afternoon. Without warming him up, coach Jared Scarpaci called the forward's name, catapulting him off the bench at the beginning of the second half as he pulled freshman midfielder Mike Giles off the field with blood pouring from his head.
"To be honest, I was just hoping Mike was okay," Epstein said.
Sand was poured to soak up the puddle of blood on the field left from the gash on Giles' head, and the game continued. Epstein said he used his teammate's injury as motivation to play his hardest.
"When you step in for a guy who just got hit up like that it could happen again just as easily," Epstein said. "So if you don't get focused real quick, it may get bad fast. Plus, we were down four already, so I had no room for error to begin with."
Epstein showed no hesitation as he stepped up for the Lions. After Norwich scored three more times, Epstein received a deep ball from senior midfielder Chris Mathias and netted Emerson's lone goal of the first-round match.
"I had 30 minutes left to go in my season, so I was going to play them as hard as I possibly could," Epstein said. "And I definitely wasn't going to let the seniors end their careers on a shutout if I could help it."
Emerson's 8-1 loss to Norwich University ended their season, as well as their short appearance in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) tournament, on a low note. During a season of personal success, however, Epstein finished as the second-leading scorer with five goals on nine shots.
Giles' injury in the Lions' only GNAC tournament appearance this year capped off a season full of scrapes and bruises. The five-game losing streak Emerson had at the end of the season was attributed to the loss of two key players. Junior defensemen and captain Steve Francis only played in nine games due to a muscle pull, while senior midfielder and captain Ryan Poliseno was able to recover from bronchitis, a sinus infection and a concussion to play in 15 games.
"They were two GNAC all-conference players and played up the center of the field," Scarpaci said. "It hurt us more than we thought."
Poliseno said he wished he could have played as much as he liked since he is a senior.
"I was supposed to be a big part of the team this year," he said. "To watch my team struggle and not being able to do anything about it was just pure frustration."
Scarpaci said his team lost three big games by one goal and started the downfall from their impressive 4-0 start to the season. The games were played after both Francis and Poliseno were injured.
"It was incredibly tough to know I could have made a difference," Poliseno said.
Although the team stumbled through the middle of their schedule, the Lions still held a winning record in the GNAC through their Oct. 13 match against Suffolk University. But being shut out by Suffolk, Emerson fell to 3-4-0 in conference play.
"It was a season of two halves," Scarpaci said. "The first half we were on fire and the second half we had some key players get injured and were out a lot. I believe if we had a healthy team all season we could have gone farther in the GNAC."
Although the Lions struggled to succeed as a whole in the post-season, individual players put up remarkable numbers down the stretch. After coming back from injury, Francis had two goals on four shot attempts and was 2-2 on penalty kicks this season.
Senior forward Will Sagar led the Lions in goals and assists, with 15 goals and six assists, respectively. He was named GNAC Player of the Week twice and had a hat trick during a game against Emmanuel College, but it wasn't enough to propel the team to victory.
"We had the injuries, obviously, but we let ourselves think we weren't a good team," Sagar said. "We lost our confidence."
The Lions will lose eight seniors this year, but will still see a strong upperclassmen presence next season with seven juniors returning to lead the team. They may not have gotten as far as they would have liked, but Scarpaci said the Lions have set the bar for future seasons.
"All of the seniors will be missed," Scarpaci said. "They have helped build this program into a consistent program that competes in New England."
Next year, Scarpaci hopes to have a more serious off-season regimen and wants his team to "continue to play [their] style of soccer." He also had nothing but praise for Epstein, who he said stepped up in the match against Norwich.
"I hope Greg continues to work hard in the off-season and other guys will step up and put the ball in the net," Scarpaci said. "Overall, we played some good soccer this year, and I am proud of the team that represented Emerson."