Hardin-Simmons women are national champs!
Junior keeper Rebecca Roth grabs one of her six
saves against Messiah.
By James Derrick
Before tonight, it had been three years since Messiah women's soccer program has suffered a loss. Now, it's been a matter of hours. Messiah hammered an excellent William Smith team to reach a dream final against an identical Hardin-Simmons side - identical in statistics (nearly) and in wins as neither team lost nor tied all season. But if anyone was favored Saturday night, it was the reigning champions: Messiah.
That all would change, however, right off the bat, when a two goal blitz in the first five minutes left the holders stunned. Messiah kicked off the game with intricate passing but any chance it could get, Hardin-Simmons went flying at the Messiah defense. Messiah's defensive stalwarts, Kelsey Gorman and Katie Hoffsmith in particular, had no problem in coping with the speed of Amy Kuykendall, Miranda Bersosa, and Erin Low, but they made the fatal mistake of giving up two corners. Not that corners are particularly dangerous, but for a team that has them down to a science, they can be very effective. Hardin-Simmons flew at Messiah to push for the chance of a dead-ball situation, and were rewarded.
Messiah's midfield wasn't ready for the initial pace. Hardin-Simmons coach Marcus Wood believed, “We couldn't keep their tempo for ninety minutes,” so they immediately set out to draw first blood, and do it early. Carolyn Powers confirmed, “we wanted [a goal] as quick as possible,” and Powers would be the hero in seeing that happen. After a great run in the 1st minute from Erin Low, who had “the best game of her life” according to Wood, Messiah was forced to clear for a corner. A high lofted ball into the box from Megan Powers off the corner saw the ball bobble in the box, take some deflections after an Amy Kuykendall shot, and fall squarely for Powers who slammed her shot from close range to grab a shocking 2nd minute lead. “I was speechless, excited. We needed that goal,” said Powers thinking back to her crucial strike.
Not finished, Hardin-Simmons proceeded to push, catching Messiah more and more off-guard, and it didn't take long to seal the deal. After Messiah was forced to clear another ball out for a corner after Bersosa's testy run in the 4th minute, Hardin-Simmons pounced again. A short Katie Kuykendall corner into the near post eventually spun into the path of an on-rushing Erin Low, she flicked the ball towards goal and watched it squeeze by a helpless Messiah keeper Autumn Reilly. With Messiah stunned and reeling, Hardin-Simmons were two goals up and in total control. “It was mind-blowing. I didn't expect [our goals] to come that quick,” claimed an Erin Low who was all smiles when assessing her team's early lead. Regardless, Coach Wood was right about Hardin-Simmons lack in ability to maintain Messiah's tempo throughout the match, but Messiah had their work cut out for them, and the situation wasn't looking too promising for a team that had been excited to play Hardin-Simmons all season. Coach Scott Frey of Messiah stressed, “we knew they were dangerous on corners. The second one put us in a deep hole that was tough to dig out of.”
The remainder of the first half was back and forth, with both sides amassing substantial chances, but it became more and more evident that the long runs of Hardin-Simmons offense was wearing fast on their energy, and just as was predicted, Hardin-Simmons who shipped just five goals all season, would be resorting to what they do best: defend.
Messiah wasted no time in stamping their dominance on the second half. In the 48th minute, Joanna Haqq provided a beautiful ball inside for Frey, but Frey's effort went wide. Corinne Wulf created a great chance to pull her team back into the match, but her effort went wide as well. The longer it took Messiah to create the perfect chance, the more direct they became. “We were a little more direct than what I would have liked, but that's what happens,” admitted a reserved Frey.
While their strengths lay in their possession game, and working the ball into the feet of Wulf, the prolific Amanda Naeher, Rachel Scheibler and Haqq, Messiah started to see fruit from their direct play, challenging Hardin-Simmons 'keeper Rebecca Roth on several occasions. But for Roth, she salivated at the thought of more time on the ball. “As a goalie, you live for that,” she asserted. “The long balls didn't wear on me at all. . . but we knew this would be a war.” Katie Kuykendall's screamer of a free-kick in the 57th minute, however, nearly gave Hardin-Simmons the respite so badly needed, but her effort careened off the word work, and out of bounds.
On the stroke of the hour, however, Hardin-Simmons finally cracked. The talented Alex Brandt, who's usual prowess was kept at bay, cut through two Hardin-Simmons midfielders, and slotted a ball through the heart of their defense to the feet of Alicia Frey.Alicia Frey faked one way, turned her defender the other way, and smashed home her shot past the reach of Roth. And just as Roth dictated, they were in for a half hour war. But Hardin-Simmons didn't seem too rattled by the looming factor of a Messiah onslaught. “We had been in that position before,” said Amy Kuykendall. Erin Low agreed, “We knew we couldn't give up there.”
Refusing to give up, Hardin-Simmons opened the game up a bit to expose Messiah's all out attack with a possible counterattack. But Messiah's possession game was too much to handle. Just a minute from Frey's goal, Naeher hit a low rocket, but directed it straight into the hands of Roth. With only three back, and all players in Hardin-Simmons' half, Messiah risked the chance of losing a foot race to the speedy Amy Kuykendall, but anytime the Cowgirls felt the need to be adventurous, Messiah was ready to expose their opennes. Therefore, from the 70th minute on, it was an 11-player defense for Hardin-Simmons. Staving off attack after attack, and collecting cross after cross, Hardin-Simmons found themselves just minutes away from claiming their school's first national championship in any sport in the NCAA. Messiah tried in vain to expose holes in Hardin-Simmons' defense, but there were none. With Brandt trying desperately to create the equalizer, she unleashed a hard but hopeful shot on goal that Roth saved with ease. Clearing every ball from that point on, Messiah could do nothing but watch in despair as time expired, and Hardin-Simmons were crowned national champions.
In describing the feeling, Powers said, “Couldn't ask for a better ending.” and defender Brittany Vacca “couldn't describe it.” A speechless Wood was extremely congradulatory to his girls saying, “This was the right group of girls to do it.” Especially about the seniors, he said, “that group of seniors changed the culture.” As for Frey, he exhibited a sadness for a group of Senior girls who have won everything there is to win. “It's been an unbelievable ride. It's a tough standard you create when you finish second and are this disappointed.” Regardless, for Hardin-Simmons, this is an historic accomplishment. One that was summed up by Roth: "All the glory to God."