ROME –– Seminarians from the Pontifical North American College scored a 1-0 win against three-time tourney champions Redemptoris Mater in the first round play of the Clericus Cup March 3.

soccerPontifical North American College seminarian Nick Nelson of the Diocese of Duluth, Minn., controls the ball as the Pontifical North American College plays a soccer match against Redemptoris Mater during the Clericus Cup tournament in Rome March 3. The U. S. seminarians won the game 1-0. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)A powerful sideline throw-in near the net by Justin Blanc of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., deflected off the opposing goalie’s fingertips and landed in the net.

“We had planned to try and attack the goal on the throw-in” in the hopes of heading the ball into the net, “but it just so happened that there was enough confusion in there that (the ball) found its way in,” Blanc told Catholic News Service.

The “Red Mat” team’s strong defense meant it was “a pretty tight and hard-fought game with not too many opportunities to score on either side,” he said.

Blanc, a second-year seminarian, said the team has “a strong class of new men” this year as well as seasoned veterans so “we’re very happy with the way the team’s coming together.”

The victory against the Neocatechumenal Way’s Redemptoris Mater seminary was especially momentous for the NAC.

Between 2007 and 2010, the NAC Martyrs’ push for the championship title was stymied by losses to the “Red Mat” squad. The Martyrs came in second place behind Red Mat in 2009 and 2010.

“The rivalry predates many of our time, but we were aware of the stakes,” Blanc said. The enthusiasm shown by the team and the fans helped “make it a fun and exciting atmosphere,” he added.

Like every year, the Martyrs had broad fan support, with seminarians dressed as superheroes and other characters, waving flags and cheering from the stands.

Captain America, Superman, Uncle Sam, one of the Mario Brothers and a furry, bright yellow chicken made their appearance at the first game.

“I don’t know what to say about the chicken, but it was there, too,” Blanc said, laughing.

The fan support “adds so much to the overall experience” and shows there are lots more ways to participate in the series besides lacing up and hitting the field, he said.

“We’re optimistic, but not complacent” about doing well in this sixth season of the soccer tournament in which 16 teams from pontifical universities, seminaries and religious orders compete for a trophy of a cleat-wearing soccer ball sporting a wide-brimmed clerical hat known as a “saturno.”

The cup has three rounds of division play before the top teams can qualify for the quarterfinals.    The Martyrs’ next game will be March 17 against a new team, Santa Maria della Riconciliazione, which has a number of Latin American and U.S. players.