Awarded its highest bid ever to the NCAA tournament, the men's soccer team will enjoy a first-round bye and, if it keeps winning, will host every game until the Final Four.

The good news came after a heartbreaking loss last Sunday against the Middlebury Panthers in the NESCAC championship game. The teams' 12-game winning streak came to an end, as it was beaten in penalty kicks. The Panthers had also dealt the Polar Bears their only regular season loss, a 2-0 defeat in late September.

After 110 minutes of scoreless soccer, the Panthers won 4-3 in penalty kicks for their third league championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

While the NCAA does not release an official nationwide ranking, the Polar Bears are ranked No.1 in New England and were one of only four teams in the entire tournament to receive a first-round bye. Statistically, Bowdoin outplayed the Panthers during regulation time, with 11 shots to the Panthers' nine. Senior midfielder Tim Prior beat out senior goalkeeper Dan Hicks for the best save of the game; the ball slipped past Hicks during a Middlebury corner, in the second half. Prior was on the goal line to clear the danger.

Defense, as ever, was the Polar Bears' strong suit.

"Sean Bishop ['12], Ben Brewster ['14] and Call Nichols ['12] have been dominant all year," said co-captain Ben Denton-Schneider '11. "They win almost every ball [in the air] which is key because not only does that anchor our defense, but it drives us forward offensively."

The best scoring chance for the Polar Bears came in the first overtime period. A perfectly placed cross from Danny Chaffetz '11 found a diving Eddie Jones '12 who headed it right to Tim Cahill, the Middlebury goaltender.

Penalty kicks started off well for Bowdoin, as Harrison Watkins, Middlebury's first shooter, hooked the ball left of the goal.

Nichols, sophomore Michael Gale, and Denton-Schneider for the Polar Bears as the teams traded goals. But on Bowdoin's fourth kick, Middlebury got back onto level terms. Cahill guessed correctly on first year Zach Danssaert's shot, as he dove to the right and made a crucial save.

Middlebury's fifth kicker, Jon Portman, found the lower left corner to give Middlebury the lead for the first time in the shootout. First year Alex Marecki needed to score to keep the game alive, but he missed left, leaving the visiting Panthers victorious.

"I thought we put out a good effort for 110 minutes but just lacked the final 'je ne sais quoi' that is needed to win a big game like that one," said Nichols.

In the days after the defeat, there has been a lot of speculation about the choice of which Polar Bears were sent to take their penalty kicks. Coach Fran O'Leary set the record straight, explaining that he sent two first years to take the penalties because they volunteered. After a week of practicing penalties, only those that wanted to shoot were selected.

"Anyone who steps up to take a penalty in a shootout is already a winner in my eyes," said O'Leary. "It takes tremendous courage to shoulder such responsibility and to have two first years step forward augers well for the direction of our program."

The Polar Bears would not have been in the final without an exciting 2-1 victory over the Wesleyan Cardinals in Saturday's semifinal matchup. The Cardinals came into the game with 14 one-goal games this season.

The seventh-seeded Wesleyan team struck first, sneaking a ball past Hicks in the 14th minute. It was the first time Bowdoin trailed in a game since conceding a goal to Babson in what was ultimately a victory on October 11.

"We got off to a rough start in the Wesleyan game," said Nichols. "For whatever reason we weren't quite as sharp as we have been."

Sophomore Michael Gale answered with less than one minute to play in the first half. After dribbling past a few players at the top of the 18-yard box, Gale's shot ricocheted off of a defender, wrong-footed Wesleyan goalkeeper Adam Purdy, and found its way to the back of the net.

In the 68th minute, the Polar Bears took the lead. After a handball in the box, Bowdoin was awarded a penalty kick. Nichols placed a perfect shot into the upper right corner, and then celebrated by high-fiving Bowdoin fans along the sideline.

Yet Wesleyan did not give up there, and Bowdoin had Hicks to thank as he kept the Cardinals quiet with a crucial save in the second half.

O'Leary and the team also added that they were excited to have played in front of a capacity crowd over the past weekend.

"The students were terrific and we are counting on the support again this coming Sunday," he said.

In preparation for its NCAA second-round matchup, the team has been enjoying a much-needed week of rest after an extremely busy regular season schedule. With an overall record of 13-1-3, the Polar Bears are one of four teams in the nation that automatically advance to the second round and will host Eastern Connecticut State University, who beat Nichols College in the first round, on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Pickard Field.

"Being selected as a top-four team and receiving a bye really helped ease the pain after Sunday. We have a week to prepare and then we start our run," said Hicks. "We'll see where it takes us."