CAMDEN Just after 8 p.m. Saturday in the student center of a quiet Rutgers-Camden University campus, freshman Ryan McCarthy tightened his body, fixed his eyes on a 65-inch flat-screen television, and rooted for the underdog.

In many ways, the Rutgers-Camden men's soccer team, playing in the Division III championship game in San Antonio, streaming live on the screen, was an underdog.

It was the team's first chance to play for the national title. The hardscrabble program didn't even have a home field until 2001. And, Rutgers-Camden trailed Messiah College, from Mechanicsburg, Pa., the defending champion, 1-0, at halftime.

"I think it's more exciting that way," said McCarthy, 18, who loves an underdog. "It's who I am, in a sense."

So, McCarthy and about 40 or so students and administrators cheered for their underdog, the Scarlet Raptors. They clapped when goalie Mike Randall, of Cherry Hill, stopped balls flying toward his head, gasped when Rutgers-Camden's shots on goal didn't score.

And the group that gathered in the Corner Store, a lounge and convenience store in the student center, talked about how proud they were of their small school, a mostly commuter campus of the state school, overshadowed by Rutgers' main campus at New Brunswick.

One administrator called Rutgers-Camden "a little piece of paradise."

Joe Tyrrell, a freshman tennis player from Haddon Township, said: "It brings the attention of the nation to a small college in New Jersey."

Jordan Djahli, a sophomore from Pine Hill, sitting a few feet away, said: "I know it's the big game; this is my team."

The group snacked on pizza and chicken wings and hoped for a strong finish, like in Friday's victory in the national semifinal game. Rutgers-Camden had scored twice in the final minute to beat Loras College, of Dubuque, Iowa. The fans who had inched closer to the television by game's end that night, erupted in cheers.

"I've never seen so many administrators jump so high in my life," said Kristin Ulrich, 20, a junior from Haddon Heights, who worked in the Corner Store on Friday.

By halftime of Saturday's game, Beverly Ballard, an administrator, declared she was nervous.

"I want them to win," said the assistant director of professional master's programs in the school of business.

Her husband, Mike Ballard, the schools sports information director, was at the game in San Antonio. The couple's two sons - one a Rutgers law student, the other a theater major - were out with friends watching the soccer game.

"I said, 'I am going to be with my Rutgers family,' " Beverly Ballard said.

Rutgers-Camden, which under NCAA Division III rules cannot give athletic scholarships, had reached the national tournament four times since its head coach, Tim Oswald, a Philadelphia native, took over.

The team has also been consistently ranked among the nation's top Division III programs during the last five years.

Oswald, a Division III standout at Elizabethtown College from 1997 to 2000, is now attracting talent from beyond South Jersey, including players who either transferred from Division I programs or were recruited by them, in part because of the Scarlet Raptors' success.

The team believed it could win it all.

This year, the team was ranked No. 2 nationally in the final regular-season Division III soccer.com poll and No. 3 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll.

During the intermission, about half of the crowd had left. So did some of the energy. But then Rutgers tied it at 1-1. Those who remained broke out in cheers.

"I thought we had the momentum, and we would score another goal," Drew Delengowski, a 20-year-old Rutgers-Camden tennis player from West Deptford, said in a phone interview after the game.

Rutgers fought through two overtimes. In Camden, the Rutgers fans were hopeful, shouting and cheering.

But Messiah scored. The final score: 2-1. The school was no stranger to the national stage - it was playing in its 10th national championship.

In Camden, silence. Then applause.

Delengowski said it "takes a lot of heart" to get as far as Rutgers-Camden did.

"We were proud that a team representing Rutgers-Camden put our name on the map," he said.

dsimon@phillynews.com

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