Managing Sports Editor
Less than seven minutes remained, and Delaware was in dire need of a stop, down two goals. Matt Kilkeary crouched down to his knees and made his 14th and final save of the game, preserving his team’s hope to pull off the upset.
Sunday night in the NCAA tournament’s first round, the unseeded Blue Hens were down 9-7 versus No. 2 Georgetown, with their backs against the wall. Thanks in large part to Kilkeary’s play in the net, Delaware stormed back to shock the Hoyas in a 10-9 upset that kept Delaware’s season going.
That moment was not the first time Kilkeary and the Hens have been placed in a must-win situation this season. In fact, they have been in that mindset since mid-April.
“I think a lot changed when we went down 0-2 in the conference season, just because we had to look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, we’re in a win-or-die situation,’” Kilkeary said. “We’ve found comfort in being in that spot.”
After back-to-back losses to Massachusetts and Hofstra, one more loss in Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) play had the potential of eliminating the Blue Hens from qualifying for the four-team conference tournament.
In the Hofstra game, Kilkeary, a redshirt senior, did not start. Instead, it was freshman Paul Reidy, who had won the starting job earlier in the season, according to head coach Ben DeLuca.
“Paul is a very talented goalie who was competing at a very high level from the first day of practice,” DeLuca said. “Because Paul was consistent and doing well in practice, he got the nod to start.”
DeLuca pointed out a non-conference road game in February where Reidy’s first big-time performance took place. At Saint Joseph’s University, Reidy came into the game after the Hawks scored four quick third-quarter goals off of Kilkeary to erase a 9-6 deficit.
Reidy closed out the final 18 minutes, allowing just one shot to pass, while making five crucial saves. Delaware went on to win by a 12-11 tally due to the freshman’s gutsy performance.
Despite losing the starting job, DeLuca applauded Kilkeary’s mentality throughout the middle of the season as Reidy received some starts up through the Hofstra game.
“What I’m most proud of is he could’ve gone a couple different directions, but he worked his tail off in practice and continued to focus and continued to lead,” DeLuca said. “He understood what he needed to do. It got to the point where he won it back.”
Kilkeary returned to the net as the starter versus Towson, with the Hens sitting at 0-2 in CAA play. He made 17 saves in a gritty team win that jump started the team’s current seven-game winning streak.
Delaware (13-5, 3-2 CAA) then won their final two games of the regular season on the road, with Kilkeary making a career-high 19 saves in the season finale at Fairfield. At 3-2, the Blue Hens clinched the No. 1 seed for the CAA tournament by the slimmest of margins.
Leaning on the senior in goal, DeLuca’s squad ran through the CAA tournament to clinch an automatic NCAA tournament berth. In an opening round game at home versus Robert Morris, Kilkeary notched nine saves in a 20-8 victory.
Ever since returning as the starter, though, the competition in practice has not waned just because the team is winning.
“That goalie room is always super competitive, everyone does push each other,” Kilkeary said. “There’s really no guarantee as you’ve seen throughout the season. The harder you work, the harder your partner works.”
That mentality was on display Sunday when Delaware battled back and clamped down on defense to give their offensive stars a chance to close out the win. Sophomore JP Ward did just that when he put the Hens up for good with a score at the eight-second mark.
Throughout all the season’s trials, DeLuca described Kilkeary as remaining “calm and collected” and commended his effort ever since joining the program.
“He’s a guy that has worked extremely hard from his first day on campus to get where he is today,” DeLuca said. “This is really a good example of perseverance of a young man who put a lot of work and went through a lot of struggles and adversity to get to where he is.”
This Sunday presents another opportunity for the Blue Hens to survive and advance, as they take on No. 7 Cornell University (12-4, 4-2 Ivy League) in the NCAA quarterfinals. A win would clinch Delaware’s second ever appearance in the national semifinals, their first and only back in 2007.
Kilkeary still views the next game just like he did the previous seven: win or go home.
“We’re still in that exact same position,” he said. “I think being uncomfortable in that gray area, where if we lose our season’s over, I think that’s been the most important part. We’ve found confidence that we can keep this alive.”