|Women's Champion 2015, 2016 and 2018!|
By D3soccer.com Contributor
Photos by Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com
Williams and Middlebury met Saturday night in Greensboro on a wet and cold evening on a soggy pitch, so both of these New England teams felt right at home. In fact, the NESCAC conference rivals were so comfortable in the elements, that they decided to treat everyone to a full 110 minutes of soccer and penalty kicks. The game was a fitting conclusion to an awesome weekend of soccer, and other than the pitch getting a bit sloppy towards the end of the Women’s Championship match, the weekend was just about perfect.
Middlebury began the game with a little more energy than Williams, perhaps a result of the Ephs playing in the later game Friday night. But, after the first 15 minutes or so, the Ephs slowly began to control the flow of the game with their possession-based style of play. Each team had limited opportunities in the first half, with the Panthers seemingly content to launch long shots against Williams’ senior keeper Olivia Barnhill, perhaps hoping for a skip on the wet, torn-up surface in front of the Ephs’ goal. Barnhill was up to the task on each attempt, and the Ephs’ defense patiently waited for the Panther forwards to make their move before dispossessing them or blocking their shot. It was reminiscent of the style of defense that they used the previous night against Christopher Newport.
That patient defensive style would eventually pay off. In the 28th minute, the Panthers launched a long attempt on Barnhill, who collected the shot and began a quick counterattack up the field. Eph forward Georgia Lord battled a Panther for the ball near the left sideline, keeping it in bounds and getting the ball to teammate Ilana Albert, who pushed down the left flank. Albert sent in a beautiful cross where teammate Aspen Pierson was perfectly positioned to settle the ball and place a quick shot past Middlebury keeper Ursula Alwang.
Middlebury’s most dangerous opportunity came at the 37 minute mark when a foul was called on the Ephs near the right sideline. The resulting free kick was cleared, but not completely as a Panther sent the ball back towards the Williams net on a high, arcing shot. Barnhill was knocked down on the play and for a split second offered a wide-open goal, but the Ephs got to the ball first and cleared it safely. The rest of the first half was Williams patiently playing defense and stifling any Middlebury threats. The Ephs finished the half looking extremely confident, calmly connecting on touch passes out of their defensive end to control the pace of the game.
|Williams' Maria Chapman with a takeaway.|
The rain picked up as the second half started and the Panthers come out with renewed energy, but Williams was still able to thwart their attack. For the first few minutes of the half, Middlebury continued to force play in the Williams end of the field, but no truly dangerous chances occurred. Eventually, however, cracks started to appear in the vaunted Eph defense. Perhaps the soggy field conditions played a factor, perhaps it was the pressure of a championship contest, perhaps fatigue was involved, or perhaps it was the increased Panther intensity. In any event, balls started to be mis-hit, and marks began to get a little bit more open.
The eventual game-changer came on a rare defensive miscue by the Ephs in the 78th minute. Panther forward Ellie Greenberg, just substituted into the game, brought the ball down the right side and launched in a desperation cross that rattled around in front of the Williams goal. Barnhill was unable to get a hand on the ball, and her teammate tried to clear it, striking Barnhill with the attempted clearance and sending the ball into the Eph net.
Now sitting tied at 1-1, Middlebury tried to take advantage of the momentum, but the Panthers were unable to capitalize on the Ephs’ depleted spirits. In fact, the Ephs survived the Panther onslaught and rallied to begin their own offensive assault, but they, too, were unable to score in regulation. Each team worked desperately to create chances, but both defenses and keepers were up to the task, keeping the 1-1 scoreline intact.
The first overtime period began like a prizefight, with two weary heavyweights trading blows. Williams came out on the front foot, forcing Alwang to make two good plays on the ball right away. Middlebury rallied and created their own chance, but Eliza Van Voorhis’ shot sailed wide. Each team earned a corner kick and fired off a few shots, but no real threats occurred until the final seconds of the first overtime, where another defensive lapse almost proved costly. This time, the mistake happened on the Panther end of the field.
With time running down under 30 seconds remaining in the first overtime period, the Panthers seemed to clear a ball that would seemingly send the game into the second overtime. But the Williams’ Ilana Albert quickly brought the ball up the left side and sent a cross into the Middlebury box. A Panther defender chose to attempt a one-timer clearance and whiffed on the ball, allowing it to fall at the feet of a waiting Sarah Scire. With just seconds left, Scire had a great look at the goal with a charging Alwang coming at her. Scire hit the shot, but Alwang made an excellent save to send the game into the second overtime and buy the Panthers another 10 minutes of soccer.
|Williams goalkeeper Olivia Barnhill stops a shootout kick.|
The second overtime saw the defending champs gaining the upper hand, possessing the ball into Middlebury’s half and creating chances. Middlebury was unable to mount any real offensive threat and seemed content to head to penalties. But the Panther defense continued to play well, especially once the Ephs neared the 18 yard box. The Ephs controlled possession in the overtime periods and had a few looks on goal but were unable to find the back of the net. So, the teams headed to the one thing that most soccer purists hate the most - the dreaded penalty kicks; what many call, “The worst way to decide a championship.”
As they have in the other penalty shootouts recently, Middlebury once again sat down starting keeper Alwang and brought in junior PK Specialist Eva Shaw. The Ephs, of course, relied on senior keeper Barnhill. The penalties were not all spectacular shots, but were all on frame, forcing both keepers to make saves. Both keepers made excellent stops and represented their teams well, but Barnhill was the star as she made a spectacular save on the deciding penalty. The Panther shooter sent her attempt low and hard towards the left post, where Barnhill just barely got an outstretched hand on the ball, sending it into the left post and the Ephs into a wild celebration. Although Williams has celebrated quite a bit the last few years, this one felt a little different for the Ephs, as this was not a seasoned bunch like last season. This was a group of youngsters that showed tremendous resilience in the playoffs and NCAA Tournament, surviving three matches that went to penalties. As the Ephs celebrated around their senior keeper, the exhausted Panthers huddled together and consoled their despondent seniors.
|A picture is worth a thousand words.|
The match finished at 13 shots for Williams and 7 for Middlebury (3 to 2 respectively for shots on goal) with the Ephs holding a 6-2 advantage in corner kicks taken. Each team was whistled for 10 fouls on the night, and Williams was offsides twice to Middlebury’s once. Barnhill made one save in goal for the Ephs and Alwang two for the Panthers. These two teams have battled all season and finished 1-1-1 (technically this game counts as a loss for the Panthers because of some obscure and austere rule, but c’mon, it was a tie) against each other this season, and these senior classes went 3-3-1 during their careers. That’s about as even as you can get, although the Ephs’ fan will point out the obvious fact that this Williams’ senior class has three National Championships to their credit.
In any event, both teams deserve massive credit for giving it their all, as both were exhausted at the end of the match and the young women truly left it all out on the pitch. The NESCAC conference is bursting with pride today (and rightly so) having captured both the Men’s and Women’s Soccer Championships and proving, at least for this year, which conference is the best in the nation. Three out of four teams in the Men’s and Women’s Finals were from the NESCAC, and all the teams represented their schools and conference tremendously. Congratulations to the Williams Ephs, your 2018 Women’s Soccer Champions!
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