Messiah defeats Amherst 3-1, advances to eighth straight Final Four
GRANTHAM, Pa. -- Messiah senior forward Erin Hench scored three goals as the Falcons battled their way to a 3-1 win over Amherst College in the NCAA Quarterfinal on Sunday. The win secured Messiah's place in the Final Four for an unprecedented, and impressive, eighth straight year.
The final three goals of the game- two by Messiah and one by Amherst, were all scored in the contest's final ten minutes, indicative of the furious and physical play by two teams chasing after the right to play on the season's final weekend.
In the end, the Falcons' win punched their tickets to San Antonio, Texas, for the NCAA semifinal game to be played on Friday, December 2.
"For this group (of players) to continue, it's exciting," said Messiah head coach Scott Frey. "They really battled today, they earned it. I thought we won the physcial battle, and we took a few licks, too. Our discipline with the ball carried us."
A 'battle' is surely how the game could be defined, with the Falcons and Lord Jeffs competing in a game that many could consider an instant-classic.
Early, the tone was set for a physical struggle that would test the fortitude of the two teams. Amherst, especially, wanted to disrupt the Falcons' possessions with aggressive play on the ball.
"We told our girls that they had to battle all game, and that we needed to play our best game," said Amherst head coach Jen Hughes. "We wanted to be aggressive and be on the attack."
Still, the Falcons managed to create an early opportunity to score. In the 11th minute of play, senior Liz Phillips found herself on a run up the left side of the field, taking possession and cutting into the box for a shot from 15 yards out on senior keeper Allie Horwitz. Horwitz, who would collect five saves on the day, punched the rising strike over the crossbar to protect the net. The resulting corner kick for the Falcons traveled through the box untouched before being cleared by the Amherst defense.
Missing out on the game's first score, the Falcons would make up for it just four minutes later. With Amherst attacking through the midfield, Phillips secured possession to clear the ball over the middle of the field to Hench. Hench, even with the advancing Amherst defense, took control of the high bounce and found herself in a race to the net. With the Lord Jeffs' defense closing in from behind, Hench crossed over the 18 yard line before slotting her shot to the bottom right corner of the goal to give her team a 1-0 lead.
The tally would prove important for the Falcons, as they would only manage six total shots in the first half. Amherst, meanwhile, collected eight shots in the first frame as they worked intently to even the score. In the 19th minute, they almost did just that.
Attacking off a corner kick, Amherst junior defender Emily Little fired a shot off her head that was caught at the top left corner of the goal by Messiah senior keeper Autumn Reilly.
Just thirty seconds later, Reilly was tested again, this time diving to her left to stab a shot by freshman Mel Stier from 15 yards out.
"They definitely had a plan, they knew what they wanted to do," said Reilly, who matched Horwitz with five saves of her own. "They weren't going to stop (attacking), so we knew we had to work hard to keep them out (of the box) as much as possible."
The Lord Jeffs attempted eight shots in the first half- the most the Falcons have allowed all season through a game's first 45:00.
Just three minutes into the second half, the Falcons almost found their second goal. Senior Corinne Wulf attacked up the midfield through the Lord Jeffs' defense before placing a ball through to classmate Jess Shirk on the left side. Shirk took two touches on the ball before rocketing a shot towards the top left corner, only to see it sail just high of the crossbar.
Meanwhile, the Lord Jeffs continued to pressure the Messiah defense. Working the ball through their midfield yet again, Little received a pass as she cut through the box towards the left side. Reilly pushed out of the goal to slide in for the save at the exact moment Little put her foot on the ball.
"We haven't called on Autumn too much this season," said Frey, reflecting on his goalie's tremendous play on Sunday. "She's been overlooked for most of the time she's been here, and everyone wonders if she can 'play.' The answer is she can 'play'- at a really high level."
With both teams exchanging physical play across the field, the Falcons continued to try and advance their lead. In the 58th minute, Shirk cut inside the defense along the left end line, firing a cross to the right side of the box to the feet of Wulf. The senior took possession, cut one touch to the right and fired a shot from 10 yards out on Horwitz. The Amherst keeper first bobbled the shot before gathering possesion to hold the score.
As both teams fought diligently for possesion, and a goal, the play continued to intensify. With just under 25:00 to play, Reilly gathered a ball in the box off a deflection only to be struck down by forward Chloe McKenzie. The play mirrored another from the first half, with this occurrence resulting in yellow card on the sophomore forward. Though the play wasn't intentional, it contributed to the rising intensity on the field.
"They were definitely playing physical, but they were a good team," said Hench. "They played good soccer the whole way through. At halftime, we just reminded ourselves that we had to continue working for forty-five more minutes. If we could do that, we could another two weeks with each other."
Perhaps thinking of those next two weeks, Hench delivered a blow to the Lord Jeffs with just under ten minutes to play.
Once again, Amherst pushed their team forward in their attack, leaving themselves vulnerable to a long clear by the Messiah defense. This time, junior Anne Trapp rocketed the ball forward to the left side of the field for Hench, who found herself with plenty of space down the sideline. Pushing the ball forward, junior defender Sandy Shepherd began to close in from the middle of the field. Hench adeptly cut the ball behind Shepherd toward the middle of the field, now finding herself advancing into the box and toward Horwitz. A strong strike past the keeper set off a loud celebration by the Messiah faithful.
Undeterred, Amherst continued to attack. In the 86th minute, they would cut the lead in half off a goal by McKenzie. The forward took a lofted pass forward to about 20 yards out, chipping it over Reilly to the left side of the goal.
"We didn't want to sit back at any point in the game," said Hughes. "We wanted to get numbers forward."
With the security of a two-goal lead gone, Messiah would get another emotional boost from Hench. Just 90 seconds after the Lord Jeffs notched their first goal, Messiah junior Alex Brandt found Wulf just 20 yards out from the goal in the Falcons' attacking third. Wulf slotted the ball to her right to Hench as she cut through the box. The senior, and former National Player of the Year, struck her shot low and to the far post of the goal. The ball, traveling just out of the reach of Horwitz, hit the left post before turning into the net for the score.
"Corinne slotted me a a nice ball, and I wasn't sure I got a good first touch," said Hench, who collected her second hat-trick in the NCAA tournament this season. "But I was able to control it, and hit it just inside the opposite post. It was a touch angle, and I'm glad it went in."
"If there is something you could have said (in criticism) of Hench this year, it's that we needed her to put the ball in the net more often," said Frey, highlighting his senior's tremendous performance. "She has to be a scorer for us, and to have a game like she did today? Wow. That's what a senior does when they want to keep playing."
The goal completed the scoring for the game, as the second half came to an end with Messiah earning their eighth straight trip to the Final Four.
Frey was also quick to highlight the defensive execution by his Messiah team- including senior Lisa Wingard, a forward who was shifted into the back row this postseason for the first time in her career.
"For Lisa to be put back there in a game like this, at this level, after never having done it before? That's incredible," said Frey. "The whole defensive unit was awesome- Trapp, Phillips, and (senior Kelsey) Gorman. All terrific."
"But we had a bunch of girls that just rose to the occassion and played fantastic," continued Frey, who highlighted the willingness of players to do fight through adversity. "Brandt was great breaking pressure, (junior Rachel) Scheibeler was really good, and everyone just battled. We're happy to have two weeks now to rest and recover."
With the loss, Amherst's season come to an end with a final record of 20-1.
"I'm really proud of this team," said Hughes, as the Lord Leffs advanced to the Quarterfinals for the first time since 2008. "They're a phenomenal group of student-athletes- some of the best I've ever had the privilege to work with."
"We came out and gave it our best shot," she added. "Messiah was the better team today."
For the Falcons, they move on to a match up with William Smith on Friday, December 2, in San Antonio. The semifinal will be a. The other semifinal will feature Wheaton College (Ill.) and Ithaca College (NY).
For Messiah, the Final Four is the next step on their quest for a third NCAA National Championship in the past four years, and fourth in program history.
In the eyes of their coach, the Falcons' opportunity this year was again earned.
The word on Messiah is always that we 'play good soccer, technical and tactical, but they aren't really that tough'," said said Frey. "We were tough today."