As rain sprinkled onto Dragone field on Sunday, Nov. 10, members of the Middlebury women’s soccer team jumped up and down in their puffy blue jackets, counting down the final seconds of the NESCAC Final against Williams. The moment seemed light-years away from the teams season-opening loss to Amherst back in early September, as a 1-0 win over the Ephs brought home the program’s first NESCAC championship since 2006. Middlebury finished NESCAC play unbeaten in its past 16 conference games, including a 2-1 semi-final win over Tufts on Saturday, Nov. 9.
On Saturday, Tufts started off the stronger of the two teams, as its best chance of the game came just three minutes into the contest. As two Panthers were left on the deck injured, Robin Estus hit a first time volley that started to dip under the crossbar, requiring a strong hand from goalie Elizabeth Foody ’14 to tip the ball over.
Injury and collision were themes throughout the whole game, with the start especially marked by incredible physicality. Tufts pressured Middlebury with their height, strength, and speed. The physical battle resulted in both teams having difficultly stringing passes together and settling into the game. For most of the half, the game seemed to be deadlocked, with neither team threatening the net.
After a sustained attacking build-up, however, the Panthers’ Ali Omsberg ’14 was fouled just outside of the 18-yard box at the 34-minute mark. Capitalizing on her excellent form of late, Julia Favorito ’14 stepped up to the right-hand side of the box to curl in an inch-perfect free kick to the far post that fell onto the head of Sarah Noble ’14 running in. The ball rocketed into the back of the net, giving Favorito a NESCAC-leading seventh assist of the season.
“Throughout this season, we have focused on one-touch finishing in the box, so it was awesome to capitalize on such a great opportunity,” Noble said. “Every goal we score is truly a team effort, because it takes all 11 players on the field to get the ball into the box in the first place.”
Middlebury wasn’t on top for long, however, as the Jumbos served up some late action drama. With just one minute left in the first half, Tufts capitalized on a scramble in the Middlebury box to find an equaliser. After a through ball from Allie Weiller, Caitlin Brandman found herself with enough space by the penalty spot to drill a shot straight down the middle past Foody.
The Panthers refused to be rattled, though, coming out the stronger of the two sides early in the second half. Scarlett Kirk ’14 was hauled down on the right hand side, resulting in another Favorito free kick. After chaos in the box with shots ricocheting off of bodies, the Panthers earned a corner. A curler of a corner kick sent in by Moria Sloan ’14 just eluded Molly Parizeau ’15, as the ball was knocked away by Jumbos keeper Kristin Wright.
Not to be denied, Middlebury found the game winner 55 minutes into the game. Kirk took the game through the opposing defense, beating two Jumbos, before ripping a shot from 17 yards out. The ball rattled the post before bouncing into Jamie Soroka’s ’16 path. Despite falling to the ground, the sophomore managed to slot the ball home for her fourth goal of the year.
Although the home side controlled the tempo of the game, the second goal created a lull for the rest of the second half with neither team enjoying much on goal action. Overall, the Panthers held a 14-8 shot advantage in the game, with Foody finishing with three saves for the win.
Just 24 hours after their semi-final win, the Panthers took to Dragone field yet again to face off against Williams for the NESCAC crown. Despite beating the Ephs earlier in the season, Williams entered the championship on a hot streak with nine wins in its last 10 games.
Middlebury opened the game aggressively in attack and did not allow Williams to build much forward play. The weather also contributed to fast-tempo play, with the ball travelling quickly around the rain-soaked pitch.
The first chance of the game fell to Williams 12 minutes in. Kristi Kirshe unleashed an impressive volley from just outside the box that was just denied the opportunity to sneak under the crossbar by an acrobatic save from Foody. On the resulting corner, Middlebury was let off the hook as confusion in the box drew Foody out of position, but Sloan coolly cleared the ball off the line.
Williams began to build in pressure and seemed to be growing in confidence. Kirshe was denied another scoring opportunity after being played through by Audrey Thomas, as Foody came out to challenge the play and pouncing on the ball before Kirshe could get her shot away.
The Panthers began resorting to long ball tactics and had problems playing to feet, as opposed to the usually clean and crisp playing style head coach Peter Kim has been drilling into his team since the first day of preseason.
However, Middlebury found a breakthrough against the run of play after a quiet spell in the game. With six minutes left in the game, Noble unleashed a scorcher of a shot that left Eph keeper Hannah Van Wetter tangled in the corner of her net. Van Wetter’s clearance found Carter Talgo ’15 unmarked, who pounced on the rebound with a first time shot into the left hand side of the goal.
“It’s a great feeling to have an impact in such an important a game,” Talgo said. “Williams is a challenging team and it’s always a close match when we play them. They had us on our heels for a little, but being able to hold a 1-0 lead for almost 75 minutes says something about the dedication and hard work of our teams and I think that’s definitely something to be proud of.”
The second half was very much a tale of the defenses, as both working hard to limit shots on goal. With the teams evenly matched, the second half produced few highlight reel moments.
Middlebury’s only real opportunity came 10 minutes into the second half. After a chasing a pass, Kirk was prevented an opportunity to shot by a last-ditch tackled by Lilly Wellenbach.
In the final 10 minutes, Williams began to pile on the pressure searching for an equalizer. With six minutes left, Carla Nicasio swung in a cross from a left hand side that found the head of Thomas. Foody could only watch helplessly as the ball went just over the crossbar. Just two minutes later, Thomas saw her shot from 15 yards clip the cross as it went just high. The Panthers first half effort was good enough for the Panthers first NESCAC crown in seven years, and the third in the program’s history. Reflecting on the win, Kim exuded a sense of satisfaction and relief.
“I think my players would agree it’s about time,” Kim said. “It felt amazing, I was so happy for them because they’ve worked so hard, and really came together as a unit to chase their goals. This is a really special team; something unlike I’ve seen in a while. I give them all credit in the world for pursuing goals they set out at start of season and capturing it.”
Middlebury now prepares to face Bridgewater in the NCAA Regional on Saturday, Nov. 16. The Bears recently captured the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference (MASCAC) title and enter the game with an overall record of 9-8-2. Despite knowing little about Bridgewater, Kim will make sure his team doesn’t take them for granted.
“They’re an NCAA tournament team so we know they’re going to be good,” Kim said. “In NCAA season, anybody can beat anyone one, so we’re treating it like a NESCAC championship game.”