Messiah women claim sixth national title
By D3soccer.com Contributor
Photos by Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com
The setting was perfect for a championship match - a sunny December afternoon in North Carolina, temperature in the 50’s with a slight breeze rustling the corner flags. Having dispatched the Cinderellas, the two perennial powerhouses stood across from each other, prepared to battle for 90 or, quite possibly with their top ten defenses, 110 minutes.
Fittingly, the women's championship final featured the two top-ranked teams: #1 Messiah and #2 William Smith. Two legendary coaches, the Herons’ Aliceann Wilber and Messiah’s Scott Frey, stood on the sidelines directing their troops. It was the scene for a perfect day, a memory that the players would remember for the rest of their lives.
To say that the two teams have a shared history would be an understatement. Their first meeting was back in 2008 in the Final Four, and they’ve met almost annually since then. The first five meetings were tilted towards Messiah, with the Falcons winning four of those games. Since then, however, the series has slanted dramatically towards the Herons. The Herons have won or drawn every game since 2014 (including a 2-0 win this season) and hold a 5-4-3 overall record in the series. The Falcons could take solace in the fact that they had won every Final Four match. Would that streak continue? Or, would the Herons continue their recent dominance?
Both teams seemed to have the same game plan: possession and patience. The first five minutes saw both sides attempting to establish possession and slowly move within striking distance of the goal. The first shot of the game belonged to the Herons in the fifth minute, but the quick, well-struck one-timer from Heron forward Sheila McQuillen was saved by the perfectly-positioned Falcon keeper Lydia Ewing, who did well to hold onto the ball and not allow a rebound.
During the next spell of time, the Falcons were the more aggressive and assertive in the attack, controlling possession and foraging into Heron territory, but only providing moderately-threatening shots. Turning away the Falcon attempts, the Herons slowly began finding their own rhythm and began to gain the upper hand, forcing their own possession game and keeping the ball from the Falcons.
With both teams boasting top ten defenses, the first half was best characterized as a back-and-forth defensive struggle with limited dangerous chances for either attack. In possession, each team was able to move slowly down the pitch, but each time the superb, physical defenses made plays to limit any shots or dangerous chances. In the latter stages of the half, the Herons grew more threatening, keeping the ball in the Falcons’ end for minutes on end. Despite the prolonged possession and several shots, none were especially dangerous and none found the back of the net.
Those squandered chances would come back to haunt the Herons. Most Messiah fans were breathing a sigh of relief that they were still even at 0-0 heading into halftime. William Smith fans, meanwhile, had to feel good about their team’s momentum and how the Herons had taken control of the game, figuring it was just a matter of time before they would hit paydirt. The Herons put up five shots to the Falcons’ three in the first half, but only one Heron shot was on target compared to the Falcons’ two. Williams Smith attempted four corners to Messiah’s one.
Great coaches use halftime to make adjustments and change game plans. Due to injuries to his two All-American players - midfielder Sunny Gelnovatch and forward Brooke Firestone - Coach Frey had to come up with some strategy to change the tide of the game. He, too, had sensed that it was only a matter of time before the Herons broke through with a goal unless his players could start possessing the ball and keep it away from William Smith. Firestone had played the first half at midfield with her injured hamstring, but was unable to continue and did not play in the second half.
With Gelnovatch out since the sectional matchup with Trinity (Texas), he had to insert someone into the midfield to help direct the attack. His choice: junior Maddie Kohl, typically a wing player who attacks from the right side. While Kohl made an impact immediately, it was her teammates who carried the day, suddenly beating every Heron to each ball and making quick, pinpoint passes to the feet of teammates. The game turned in the direction of the Falcons, so much so, that the Heron defense began to have bouts of confusion and losing their marks. William Smith didn’t seem to have the energy that they had carried in the first half, especially in the final minutes before halftime.
Coach Wilber tried making her own adjustments, at one point pulling All-American defender Maialen Martinez off the field briefly to discuss options. While Martinez was off the pitch, the Falcons struck. Forward Ellie Lengacher found a streaking Maddie Kohl making a run down the middle of the Heron defense. Lengacher played a perfect ball to Kohl’s feet, who then, with a defender on her back, beat the keeper just inside the left post. The goal came with 35 minutes left in the game.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Herons streaked down the field and nearly tied the game within ten seconds when midfielder Amanda Adams found forward Katrine Berg running past the Falcon defense on the right side. Berg got in behind the defense and one-on-one with the keeper, her laser shot glancing off Ewing’s gloves and just over the crossbar. The ensuing corner kick was cleared away by the Falcon defense and the threat averted.
Unlike most teams, the Falcons refused to sit back and defend, instead choosing to force their game on the Herons and possess. The Falcons continued to press forward and came close to doubling their advantage several times over the next ten minutes, with Heron keeper Amanda Kesler doing well to push a close-range effort from Lengacher over the bar. Unlike the first half, William Smith was unable to turn the tide back in their favor, and large chunks of time were taken off the clock with the Herons unable to create any legitimate goal-scoring opportunities of their own.
A second Messiah goal always felt more likely than an equalizer, but neither materialized as time began to slip away from the Herons. William Smith made a few last-minute runs at the Falcons, but the Messiah defense was always able to step up and spoil the attack. Falcon keeper Lydia Ewing only had to smother one lobbed shot in the final few minutes, and as time ran down, the battered Falcons began to believe that another championship and Final Four victory over William Smith was inevitable. Messiah held the statistical edge in the second half, putting up seven shots to the Herons’ three to lead 10-8 for the game. Shots on goal finished at 6-3 in favor of the Falcons, while corner kicks were in Smith’s favor at 6-4.
The Herons' final record stands at 21-2-1. Their 21 wins against two losses, and a draw is the third-best all-time for the Herons, after a 23-1-0 season in 2013 and a 21-1-0 record in 2016. The Herons won National Championships in 1988 and 2013, and have advanced to the Final Four 11 times, reaching the national final five times.
Messiah, who last won the championship in 2012, now has a record six Division III women's soccer titles, one more than former Division III program UC San Diego. The Falcons previously won in 2005, 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2012. It was their third title won in Greensboro, N.C. (2005, 2008, 2019). The Falcons finish the season 22-1-3, with the only loss coming three months ago at William Smith.
And that history between these two? It has only gotten more interesting and intense, now standing at 5-5-3 for the teams. They’ll go at it again next September, this time in Grantham, PA, on the Falcons’ home turf. One thing about that game - you know it will be intense, and you know it will be soccer of the highest caliber between two of the very best teams in D-III women’s soccer. Congratulations to Messiah Women’s Soccer, the 2019 NCAA DIII National Champions in Women’s Soccer from all of us here at D3Soccer.com.
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