This was the scene on the second floor of the Mendenhall Center on the UNLV campus Monday morning:
A silver cup was on the end of a coffee table in front of a big-screen TV, its inscription facing away. This was the Western Athletic Conference men’s soccer tournament championship trophy, which the Rebels were not expected to win this year. In the middle of the coffee table sat a cup of coffee with a swizzle stick. At the other end were a half-eaten bagel, a bottle of sports drink and one of the player’s backpacks, which appeared to contain books, this being the soccer team.
Around the room were longtime supporters of the program: Tim McGarry, head of UNLV’s soccer foundation; Danny Barber, a local businessmen who starred for the Rebels during the late 1980s; John Kennedy, a longtime referee from Scotland and National Soccer Hall-of-Famer who makes his home in Henderson; Barry Barto, former staunch defender for the NASL’s Philadelphia Atoms and former Rebels head coach, the patriarch of the program.
Rich Ryerson, who played for Barto and is the current Rebels’ coach, was standing behind a scrum of his players. Ryerson was wearing a UNLV soccer scarf, which he sports only on special occasions. “Or when I’m cold,” he said.
This was a special occasion.
This was the second time in three years Ryerson wore the UNLV soccer scarf to view an official NCAA Tournament selection show.
This time, the TV feed did not cut out.
A cheer went up when it was announced UNLV would play at San Diego State at 7 p.m. Thursday. The Rebels were careful not to bump the table and spill the cup of coffee with the swizzle stick.
A cheer probably went up at San Diego State, too, because the Aztecs drew one of the few teams in the bracket with a losing record. The Rebels are 10-11-1, which makes winning the silver cup engraved with the WAC logo an even bigger deal, because this was a side that started 2-7 and appeared to be going nowhere.
UNLV was said to be a year away. The Rebels started five or six freshman most of the season, but Ryerson said he used 22 different starting 11s. He thought that might have made a difference in UNLV speeding up the maturation process, and making it back onto the big bracket.
“A lot of guys got a lot of experience through the year,” said Ryerson, who only a few years ago was manning a fireworks stand to raise money to keep the program going. “I think that’s what paid off in the tournament. Guys had a chance to play a lot during the season, and then had to step up in the final three games. So very happy about it.”
The guy who stepped highest was Danny Musovski, a junior from Henderson, one of 16 local kids listed on the roster. Musovski always seems to step highest. Despite missing five games with a midseason hamstring injury, he found the back of the onion bag 12 times en route to being named conference MVP for the second time in three seasons.
Musovski scored both UNLV goals in their 2-1 championship game victory over Air Force. After converting a pass from Marquis Pitt with a one-timer that gave UNLV a 1-0 lead in the 13th minute, he drove into the box and scored from 10 yards in the 79th — just 63 seconds after the Falcons had forged a 1-1 stalemate.
There’s a good chance UNLV may lose Musovski to the pros after the NCAA Tournament, but that’s a discussion for another day.
“A lot of people were kind of counting us out of the tournament, not expecting we were going to able to make a run,” he said, flashing a perfect smile. “But we did. I think we kind of proved a lot of people wrong, and now we’re in the tournament at the end of the day. It’s an exciting feeling.”
Yes it was, and behind the scrum of players, UNLV athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy was talking about this being the seventh conference or conference tournament title for the Rebels during the current calendar year in the so-called nonrevenue sports — and that UNLV even won a football game it wasn’t supposed to win on Saturday, in a most dramatic and high-scoring fashion.
When you combine that with the UNLV women’s soccer team making it back to the NCAA Tournament last week, and what the men’s team accomplished over the weekend and on Monday, it seemed like a special occasion. It was 77 degrees outside, but not too warm to be wearing a soccer scarf.
Contact Ron Kantowski at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.
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