This is the eighth weekly installment in the "Top 30 Moments" feature to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the East Coast Conference.
Heading into the fall of 2006, Dowling men's soccer was firmly established as one of Division II's top programs. Under the direction of head coach, John DiRico, the Golden Lions had won seven conference championships, played in as many NCAA Championships, and advanced to the Division II Final Four three times. A National Championship was the only thing missing from the program's list of accolades.
Armed with two of the nation's top goal-scorers and a stingy defense, the Golden Lions finally reached that pinnacle in a memorable 2006 season.
Dowling dominated during their regular season schedule. They won their first 16 matches before a scoreless tie against Dominican sent the Golden Lions into postseason play with a 16-0-1 mark. In that span, they outscored their opponents 66-7. Dowling scored at least three goals in 12 games and shutout their opponents on 10 different occasions.
Ten different Golden Lions were honored with a spot on the All-Conference squad for their play and ECC Hall of Famer, Morten Jensen, was named the league's Player of the Year.
Dowling began its postseason slate with a 3-1 win over Bridgeport in the ECC semifinals, setting up a date with New Haven in the final. The Chargers, who came into the match with an under .500 record, played the Golden Lions tight in an upset bid.
More than halfway through the second half, the game was knotted at 1-1 but Dowling would not be denied a conference title. In the 78th minute, Jensen sent a free-kick into the box the was headed in by Thomas Vaaland to clinch the victory.
Dowling easily disposed of C.W. Post (3-0) and Lock Haven (4-0) to open up NCAA Championship play. Southern Connecticut St. was up next with a berth in the Final Four on the line. Like Dowling, the Owls were one of the top programs in Division II but unlike the Golden Lions, Southern Connecticut had previously won six Division II National Championships.
The Owls seemed up to the challenge of upsetting the top-ranked Golden Lions. After a scoreless first half, SCSU struck first on a goal from Shane Ogilvie. Remarkably, it was the first time all season that Dowling had trailed.
The clock ticked down to just three minutes before their dream season came to an end but once again Vaaland played the hero. On a free-kick from about 25 yards out, Vaaland sent the ball to the top left corner to tie the match.
In overtime, Vaaland would once again come up big. With just under five minutes on the clock in the first OT period, Vaaland lined up for another free-kick. This time, the ball found the head of Guy-Roland Kpene who headed home the clincher and Dowling was on to its fourth Final Four in six seasons.
Another tough task awaited the Golden Lions in the Final Four. Their opponent was No. 3 West Florida. The Final Four was also being held in Pensacola, Fla., just six miles from the Argonauts' campus.
West Florida found the back of the net first in the 17th minute, but Dowling answered with a Patrick Cunningham goal just 1:04 later. The Argonauts ended up heading into the halftime break with a 2-1 lead after another tally in the 37th minute.
Dowling's chances looked bleak after West Florida upped their lead to 3-1 when Felipe Lawall scored his second goal of the game in the 55th minute. However, Dowling did not go quietly.
In the 61st minute, Jensen, who had not started the game due to an injury suffered against Southern Connecticut, sent home his 24th goal of the season to cut the Argonaut's lead in half. Kpene followed less than five minutes later with his 25th goal of the year to knot the score at 3-3.
Overtime followed with neither team scoring a goal. Goalkeeper William Grady made two of his 11 saves on the evening in the second overtime period to help send the match to penalty kicks.
After both teams converted on their first kick, Jensen and West Florida's Nick Mroczkowski both missed their kicks in the second round. Both teams found the back of the net on their next three chances, meaning the PKs we're now in sudden death.
Ahmadoul Gaye converted first to give Dowling a 5-4 edge. Then Grady became the evening's hero when he stopped Patrick McClean's attempt, sending the Golden Lions on to the National Championship match.
No. 2 Fort Lewis, who entered at 21-1-1 and was attempting to win a second straight National Championship, would be Dowling's opponent in the final.
With both teams on the brink of a National Championship, the match was tightly contested throughout. However, late in the first half Dowling's dynamic duo of Kpene and Jensen broke through. Off a feed from Kpene, a still hobbled Jensen chipped a shot just over the reach of Fort Lewis' goalkeeper to give Dowling the lead.
In the second half, the Golden Lions held off a furious rally from Fort Lewis. Dowling's defense swarmed to the ball, blocking five shots and coming up with two team saves in the final period. Luck also was on Dowling's side as a shot from Fort Lewis' David Barden hit the crossbar with just 3:05 left on the clock.
From there, the Golden Lions held on to claim the school's first-ever National Championship in any sport. It also marked the first National Championship outside the sport of lacrosse in ECC history.
Overall, Dowling finished with a 22-0-2 record. They also finished with the second-ranked scoring offense (3.5) and fourth-ranked goals against average (0.56) in all of Division II.
After the season, Jensen and Kpene earned numerous accolades. Kpene, who later went on to become the first (and still only) ECC player to ever play in the MLS, was named a Second Team All-American.
Jensen, who still holds the ECC record for goals in a career, was named a First Team All-American and the NSCAA Division II National Player of the Year.
In addition, DiRico was recognized as the NSCAA Division II National Coach of the Year.