Men’s soccer wins conference opener on the strength of Blake’s last-minute goal

Alex Blake ’03 netted a goal for men’s soccer (2-0-0; 1-0-0 NESCAC) with one minute remaining in regulation to secure a 1-0 victory for the Ephs over the Conn. College Camels (0-2-0; 0-1-0 NESCAC) in their conference opener on Saturday. The win was the second of the week for the Ephmen, who opened their season by making quick work of the Babson Beavers (2-2-1) to the tune of a 7-2 victory.

As far as anyone can tell, preseason expectations for the team have turned into realities: the team has played unyielding offense while looking vulnerable on defense.

Some have noted, however, that the defensive unit, which underwent some revision after the win against Babson, looked sharper in their second contest than in their first.

Blake, the defending NCAA Div. III Player of the Year, has made a strong early bid to retain his title, scoring four goals and assisting on another in the team’s first two games.

In Saturday’s win, the Ephs controlled the game throughout and fired off as many as 36 shots on goal, but their offensive advances were stymied time after time. Stingy Camel defense was made all the stingier thanks to the 5-4-1 formation the Camels employed, in which the team essentially placed seven defenders between the Ephs and their goal. Also working against the Ephs was the unfortunate dimensions of the standard soccer goal; to wit, a maddening eight shots hit the post.

Most significant, though, was the lights out play of Conn. College goalkeeper Jon Knights. The Ephmen threw everything they had at Knights, but he managed to get a glove on everything that came his way until the 89th minute of play.

At that point, with the clock winding down and with Camel defenders cramming into the box, Blake sized up the defense perfectly and bent a 19-yard free kick into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal to break the 0-0 tie.

“I thought it was a very similar game to the one we had last year against Worcester State except with a different result,” said Head Coach Mike Russo, referencing the Ephs’ disappointing loss to Worcester St. in their final game last year. The loss brought a sudden end to a season in which team members and fans alike had realistically dreamed of a national championship.

“It was a very frustrating game,” Russo said of Saturday’s contest. “They played very defensively and did a nice job of shutting down Alex for the most part. Their keeper especially was brilliant. We played hard; we were just thwarted for a long time.

“It was very similar to our last game last year but this time around we found a way to win. We need very competitive games like this to raise our level. Last year we only had two and we were worse off for it so it’s nice in a way to play a game like this.”

Earlier in the week the Ephs opened their season with a convincing 7-2 victory over Babson on a miserable, rainy afternoon at Cole Field. The Ephs put the game out of reach early on, scoring all seven goals in the first half.

As expected, the Williams offense played a blistering brand of soccer featuring strong combination play with aggressive overtones. Blake began his final campaign with an awesome display of scoring prowess, netting three goals while assisting on another.

Khari Stephenson ’04, who will be charged with filling the void left by graduating standouts Josef Powell ’02 and Ted Giannacopoulos ’02, scored two goals and had one assist. Romel Wallen ’04 also had two assists.

The Ephmen were not without fault in the season opener, however, as the team looked decidedly shaky on defense. Worse yet, after a largely unyielding first half in which they dominated the pace of play, the Ephs allowed the Beavers to get on the scoreboard with two seconds remaining in the half.

“We’re very upset about letting up that goal,” Russo said. “It took away from a scintillating performance. I thought in the first half we played some of the best soccer that we’ve played in the past two or three years, against a team that’s already in its fifth game no less.

“There was some great combination play with Romel and Khari and Alex and Ryan Olsen [’04] and Dylan [Smith ’03]. Unfortunately, I thought the goal right before the half tarnished some of the performance because we’ve been harping on them about not losing concentration on restarts.

“Overall though I’m pleased because it was a good showing. We know we can score goals; now we just need to defend against them better.”

The Ephs will next take the field on Wednesday, Sept. 18 in a 7 p.m. game at Westfield.