When the last second ticked off the game clock of Marquette’s 1-0 victory over Pittsburgh Saturday night, coach Louis Bennett finally achieved what he hadn’t done since arriving at Marquette five seasons ago: bring a conference championship to Marquette.
“We came here to build something of significance, and I don’t think it’s fully built. But we’re definitely on the way to having a program that everyone can be proud of,” Bennett said.
Senior midfielder Calum Mallace’s goal in the 59th minute led Marquette’s men’s soccer team to the 1-0 victory over Pittsburgh (4-13-1, 2-7 Big East) on Senior Night, making it the Big East Blue Division champion after seven straight losing seasons and a coaches poll that predicted the team to finish sixth out of eight teams in the division.
“I don’t even think words can describe it. It’s one of the best feelings ever,” Mallace said of winning the Big East. “I put everything I could into this program and into this team. It’s just so worth it to watch it all pay off and win the league.”
It is the soccer program’s third conference title and first-ever Big East championship. It also marks Bennett’s sixth conference championship win, after earning five in 11 years as the head coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee before coming to Marquette.
The victory capped off Marquette’s first winning season under Bennett (9-7-2, 7-2-0 Big East) and earned Marquette a bye into the quarterfinals of the Big East Championship tournament. There, Marquette will face one of three teams Saturday. Georgetown (10-4-4, 5-3-1 Big East) or Providence (10-6-1, 5-3-1 Big East) will finish as the No. 5 seed in the Big East Blue Division (there are still regular season games to be played). Whoever is the No. 5 seed will play at Louisville (10-5-2, 3-4-2 Big East), Wednesday. The winner of Louisville against the No. 5 seed will play Marquette Saturday.
In 2006, Bennett’s first year at Marquette, the Golden Eagles did not win any games. Each season since then Marquette’s win total has increased: one in 2007, two in 2008, three in 2009, seven in 2010 and nine in 2011.
“This is for the players. This is for the players that have been through this and worked really hard,” Bennett said. “But it’s also for the administration. They took a lot of flack in the first two or three years about what we were doing and how we were doing it. And the media was killing us. But the fact that they had faith that we would put a program together that had the capabilities of doing some special things (was huge).
“They didn’t doubt what we were doing because they knew what we were doing underneath the surface. It’s a bit like an iceberg. You’ve got to put a lot of work in underneath before you do on the top.”
Senior defender Michael Alfano said the conference title is extra special for the senior class, which went through those struggles with Bennett.
“We’ve been here since the beginning when we could barely get a win if we got lucky,” Alfano said. “I’m so proud of the guys and it’s awesome to see all the guys who have been through the struggles who’ve been there and put in the work year-in-and-year-out and finally it pays off.”
But the burden of a struggling program came down on Bennett in particular.
“I blame no malice on the people that were naysayers. I really don’t. They didn’t know any better,” Bennett said. “Just because I did it in another place doesn’t mean I can do it here in one of the best leagues in the country.”
Bennett has always had faith in his methods, but the conference title confirms he’s done things the right way at Marquette.
“When you win a championship, it gives you validity to what you’re doing. You can tell people as many times as you like but until they actually experience something like this I don’t know if it really sinks in,” Bennett said.
For Alfano, it meant everything to see the smiles across the faces of Bennett, associate head coach Stan Anderson and assistant coach Steve Bode after the victory.
“They’ve gone to battle for us, bent over backwards for us, had sleepless nights. They’ve put in more hours than anyone could even imagine,” Alfano said. “For them to have it finally pay off it was only a matter of time, and I’m so happy for them.”
Mallace said it’s important the team know this is only the beginning.
“It’s fun, we’re going to celebrate this one, then get done with it and move on. We’ve got some work to do because we’re not done yet,” Mallace said.