Brandt's Goal Propels Falcons Into National Championship
San Antonio, TX– For the second consecutive season, and third time in the last four years, Messiah College and William Smith found themselves squaring off in the NCAA Division III Women's Soccer Final Four. And, as in years' past, the Falcons of Messiah played to a triumphant performance.
Messiah junior Alex Brandt broke a scoreless tie in the 70th minute of play, leading the Falcons to a thrilling 1-0 win over the Herons of William Smith. The NCAA semifinal lived up to the hype, as Messiah (21-0-1) and William Smith (20-1-1) entered the match-up ranked #1 and #2 in the nation, respectively.
Adding to the game's intrigue was the scoreless tie the two teams played to in early September of this season—the only blemish on either teams' record entering today. The scoreless draw contributed to the assumption that this year's semifinal would be unlike their previous Final Four matchups; Messiah defeated William Smith 3-0 in 2008 and 4-0 in 2010.
"I thought we played really well today," said Messiah head coach Scott Frey. "The game was going to be decided either by a mistake or a moment of brilliance—and we found that moment of brilliance."
In the 70th minute of play, Brandt received the ball in the midfield just 30 yards out from the Herons' goal. A quick touch moved Brandt right and toward the top of the arc, where she would rocket a shot to the upper-corner of the right side of the goal. The shot, which at first appeared to be sailing just a bit high, dove down and out of the reach of Herons keeper Amanda Davis. The ball glanced off the bottom of the crossbar before landing in the back of the net.
"When I hit, I thought it might be a little high," said Brandt of her game winning goal. "To see that it went in, it felt great."
Brandt's goal was assisted by classmate Rachel Scheibeler, who delivered the ball to Brandt from the left side of the field.
"I saw Alex making a run to the center of the field, and made a simple pass to give her a chance to attack," said Scheibeler. "We found the opportunity we needed."
Messiah's score on Brandt's shot proved to be the difference for the Falcons, the unprecedented result of a steady Messiah attack. The Falcons launched six shots in each half, with six shots going on goal. Herons' keeper Amanda Davis made five saves on the day.
The Herons managed only one shot on Messiah's Autumn Reilly.
"We were patient today, and we 'played simple' when we needed to," said Frey. "We're really proud of our effort today."
Though Messiah managed to control the offensive momentum for most of the game, it took both teams more than a few minutes at the beginning of the game to settle in. The Falcons, especially, were unable to capitalize on early opportunities in the Herons' box. In both the 16th and 26th minutes of play, senior Lisa Wingard crossed possession into the goal box for her teammates, with the Herons' defense managing to clear the ball without allowing a clean strike by the Falcons' forwards.
Soon after, the Herons missed their best chance to score in the first half. Junior Whitney Frary attacked through the midfield into the Herons' attacking third before slotting a ball into the box for freshman Madeline Buckley. Buckley, who appeared open on her run into the box, could not control her touch on the ball as Reilly gathered the possession 10 yards out from the goal.
"It took a bit for us to get really relaxed out there," said Brandt. "It may have been nerves (by both teams), but we settled down."
Though both teams may have seemed anxious at the start, the effort and competition on the field was as expected for the two perennial contenders. The defensive execution of both teams was also a major factor, with Messiah (4) and William Smith (3) combining to allow only seven goals through the 2011 season as they entered today's game.
In the 30th minute of the first half, it looked as though Messiah would break through the Herons' row of defense. Senior Erin Hench delivered the ball through the midfield to Brandt, as the junior attacked in the open field. Met by the defense, Brandt slotted a through ball to the left side for a streaking Corinne Wulf. The junior entered the box on her route from the left wing to gather possession and attack Davis, who was closing out from the goal. Wulf's strike would sail just high of the left corner, leaving the almost 500 fans in attendance gasping from anticipation.
"Mentally and physically, it can be wearing to match what they're trying to do," said Herons' head coach Aliceann Wilber of the Falcons' shots on goal. "We knew it would be a big task to shut them down, but I thought we did a thorough job—especially in the first half."
Messiah's last great chance in the first frame would come with just under 4:00 remaining, as Scheibeler cut in along the left end line for a cross through the goal box. Untouched by Davis and the other Herons' defenders, the ball arrived to the right side of the goal box for Wingard; however, the ball would roll just beyond the senior's reach before being cleared away on the ensuing action.
"We really wanted to match-up with them on ballside," said Davis, the Herons' senior goalkeeper. "Our outside backs really needed to pinch in, and we wanted to keep Hench and Brandt marked at all times. We knew it would be hard, but we also knew we were capable."
Moving out of the half, the Herons' defense continued to shut down opportunities for the Falcons. Hench, who entered the weekend with six goals already in the Falcons' 2011 postseason run, almost put her team ahead in the 61st minute of action.
At that time, the Falcons' midfield fed Wulf on the right side as she was attacking down the sideline. Her first touch cut her around the outside of her defender and towards the box, with the Herons' defense remaining marked on Hench in the midfield. Wulf continued her attack to about 10 yards from the goal before Hench's defender slid over to stop her attack. A quick drop to Hench led to a swift, strong strike to the bottom right corner of the goal where Davis would make a diving stop. For the moment, Davis' save kept the game knotted at 0-0.
Less than nine minutes later, Brandt's goal would break the tie. Combined with the two team's match-up from early September, Brandt's goal would also end almost 180 minutes of scoreless play between the two rivals—"not long enough," Wilber said.
"Their shots in the second half were a reflection of the pressure by both teams," added the Herons coach. "We weren't able to execute our game plan defensively and put numbers out in front (to attack). We got worn down a bit."
Worn down but not out of it, the Herons found themselves with a terrific opportunity to tie the game in the 75th minute of play.
A free kick from nearly 45 yards out towards the left sideline sailed into the Falcons' box where it arrived at the foot of senior defender Jessie Tarantio—somehow unmarked on the far side of the box. Her one-touch off the free kick was grabbed by Reilly just off the goal line to preserve the Falcons' 1-0 advantage. The save would be the first and last for Reilly on the day.
Reilly's lone save came on the Herons' only shot of the game, as Messiah's back row of defense proved every bit—and more—as effective as their opponent.
"Our back row just doesn't give up many chances," said Frey. "They really contained (William Smith) well. They're just steady and really know how to cover for each other. They really trust each other, and they were solid all game."
The loss by the Herons dropped their record to 20-1-1, with the sting of again losing to Messiah challenging the appreciation of the tremendous accomplishments of the William Smith program—especially those of their senior class.
"Messiah has a long-held standard of excellence, a great legacy of success," said Wilber. "We've been trying to close the gap (between our programs) and we're still working on that. Our program has really grown since 2008, when our current seniors were in their first year," she added. "They've matured a lot and so has our program."
"It's great to be (in the Final Four) again," said Tarantino, who was honored on Thursday evening with the NCAA's Elite 89 award in recognition of her outstanding 4.0 GPA as an Engineering and Mathematics major at William Smith. "It's not a great feeling right now after losing, but we'll soon be able to appreciate what our program has done."
The Falcons, meanwhile, advance into the NCAA Championship for the fifth consecutive season. They will be looking for their fourth National Championship in program history following titles in 2005, 2008, and 2009.
The Falcons' opponent in the Championship will be Wheaton College (IL.), who defeated Ithaca College in the other semifinal by the score of 2-0. Messiah lost to Wheaton College 1-0 in the 2007 National Championship, their first of two national runner-up finishes in program history (2010, Hardin-Simmons University).
"For this senior class to make it to a fourth championship game, that's impressive," said Frey, as Messiah will look to avenge the 2007 loss to Wheaton. "This entire team has worked extremely hard this year, in each game. We've had adversity to fight through, and we're really proud of them. This is a special group."
The Falcons' match-up with the Thunder of Wheaton College is set for 1:30 CST on Saturday, December 3, at the Blossom Soccer Complex in San Antonio, Texas.