Women’s Soccer Bows Out in Second Round of NCAAs

By ROB ERICKSON

After a thrilling season filled with ups than downs, the women’s soccer team’s 2017 campaign came to a close in the second round of the NCAA tournament this past weekend.

Playing at the field of regional host MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Panthers opened the 64-team tournament with a 1–0 victory over the Western Connecticut State Colonials on Saturday, Nov. 11.

The next day, the team squared off against the Engineers in what promised to be an exciting match as it featured two top-25 teams (No. 13 MIT and No. 17 Middlebury). There was added intrigue, as well, given that it was the Panthers who eliminated MIT from NCAAs in the first round of the 2016 tournament. This time, however, it was the Engineers who outdid the Panthers. After 90 minutes of tenacious soccer from both teams, MIT emerged with a 1–0 victory to send Middlebury home with a final record of 12–4–2.

After getting bounced from the Nescac tournament in the first round three weeks ago, the Panthers found themselves waiting at home while the conference championship concluded the next weekend. Even though they didn’t yet have the assurance that they’d even be invited to the NCAA tournament, Middlebury was hungry for revenge: they went above and beyond in their preparation to put themselves in the best possible position to succeed.

When they did get the call for the NCAA tournament, they were ready, according to Alex Barber ’19:

“MWS came into the NCAAs sharp and ready to play. Even though we didn’t get to compete in the last weekend of the Nescac tournament, we took no time off and instead played a full inter-squad match on that Saturday. We had an intense week of practice leading up to the first weekend of NCAAs, including a 6:30 a.m. practice and a training session at UVM.

“We don’t mess around when it comes to the NCAAs because we know how great of an opportunity it is and how fierce the competition is. It’s all about how bad you want it, and we consistently battle to show it.”

Their preparedness was more than evident in Saturday’s matchup against Western Connecticut St.

Although the Panthers only ended up winning by one goal, the details of the box score offer a little more insight as to how the game really went.Middlebury dominated the game in terms of possession and managed 19 shots to Western Connecticut State’s nine. Some of the negative statistics even pointed to a dominant Panther team: the fact that Middlebury was flagged for offside violations seven times to the Colonials’ one was indicative of how much more time the ball spent on their opponent’s half of the field.

Barber felt that Saturday’s matchup against the Colonials was a high point in the Panthers’ season, at least in terms of their performance.

“We played technically sharp from the beginning and kept the ball on their half for most of the game, creating continuous scoring opportunities for ourselves,” Barber said. “Defensively, we kept their best player from having any dangerous attacking opportunities. I think that game was some of the best soccer we played all season.”

Barber was involved in Middlebury’s best scoring opportunity of the first half when she directed a corner kick into the penalty box around the 27-minute mark. Alissa Huntington ’18 got her head on the cross, but the Colonials’ keeper managed to fend off the attempt with a diving save.

The Panthers, keeping the crowd on their toes, ended up waiting until the 83rd minute to convert on one of their many scoring opportunities. Clare Robinson ’19 crossed a ball to Barber in Colonial territory, who, in turn, found Virginia Charman ’20 with a beautiful one-touch pass. Charman didn’t waste the opportunity. She laced the ball into the upper-left corner of the net to give Middlebury the deciding 1–0 lead. The Colonials made one last attempt that ricocheted off the crossbar in the 86th minute, allowing the Panthers held on for the 1–0 victory to advance to the second round.

Facing an MIT team on Sunday that had just stomped Castleton 7–2 a day before, Middlebury nevertheless felt ready for what their opponent was going to bring.

“Having played MIT in the first round last year,” Barber explained, “we know what kind of team they are and how they like to play. They play technical and pretty soccer, just how we like to play. Both teams had lots of scoring opportunities and it was a very exciting game, but ultimately, we were unable to find the back of the net in time to score a goal and tie it up.

“MIT is a great team, and we finished the game with our heads held high, knowing that we are a great soccer team that had a fantastic season.”

Head coach Peter Kim didn’t feel that the team came out flat on Sunday or that they were dealing with a victory hangover, either.

“We were capable of winning both games this weekend, to be sure,” Kim said. “Unfortunately, we had difficulty finishing goals this season, and that ended up being the story of the match on Sunday. We created plenty of chances to score, and should’ve finished a few more than we did.”

Middlebury led Sunday’s match in shot attempts, 11–10, but only managed to put two of those on target to the Engineers’ five. Once MIT scored what was to be the only goal of the game in the 22nd minute, the Panthers found themselves playing a frustrating game of catch-up for the rest of the match, colored by shot attempt after shot attempt that seemed to miss by just inches.

In the first half, Eliza Robinson ’21 had a free kick sail high and a second attempt corralled by the MIT goalie in the span of a minute. Eliza Van Voorhis ’21 connected with a header from a Barber corner-kick but missed over the crossbar. In the second half, Robinson had another attempt sail just over the top of the goal. Although possession went back and forth, the Panthers were mostly held away from the Engineers’ penalty box. When the official’s whistled sounded to signal MIT’s 1–0 victory, Middlebury’s season was over.

On the whole, Kim had some very positive things to offer about the Panthers’ season.

“I’ll remember this season as one of resiliency,” Kim said. “We suffered setbacks in a few key games that we felt we should have won, but those results only strengthened our resolve.

“I’m impressed by how we battled back and earned a NCAA tournament berth, then played some excellent soccer in Cambridge. We out-possessed and outshot Western Connecticut St. by a large margin and pinned MIT in their own half for significant portions of the game.

“It was a heartbreaking way to finish the year,” Kim said, “but the final result doesn’t take away from the effort the players put in. Hopefully younger players learned how hard they have to work in order to succeed, both individually and as a team. As for the seniors, they are largely responsible for the resiliency that this team showed. While a Nescac run would have been fitting for them, they can be very proud of the team that they built. They left a lasting legacy and will be sorely missed.”

Barber looked back on the season just as fondly, if not even more so — largely thanks to the close relationships she developed with her teammates over its course.

“Since we graduated 11 seniors last year, it was important to reassess our personnel and figure out who was going to fill important roles on the team that were vacated,” Barber said. “I was consistently blown away by the amount of talent on this team, and how deep our bench is. We didn’t just play with 11 starters the whole season, we played with everyone.”

But she saved her most touching words for her teammates about to graduate: Huntington, Maddie Morgan ’18, Emma Shumway ’18 and Rebecca Palacios ’18.

“Our four seniors have given our team and the soccer program endless dedication, heart and laughs,” Barber said. “They have showed us what it means to work for something you want badly and win, and what it looks like to smile and be grateful in the face of defeat. Alissa, Maddie, Emma and Becca are such special and intelligent individuals, and we will miss them so much as they go off to do amazing things with their lives.”

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Women’s Soccer Bows Out in Second Round of NCAAs