What a difference a week makes.
A week after suffering a shocking loss to conference foe Bowdoin – albeit a loss that came on a fluke own-goal – men’s soccer (4-1; 2-1 in the NESCAC) took to the field against Trinity (2-2-1; 2-1-1) with something to prove.
Not only were the Ephs charged with righting the ship after an uncharacteristic home field loss exposed chinks in their armor, but they had to do it against a Trinity team that had tied Middlebury – the other traditional NESCAC heavyweight – the week before catapulting the Bantams into the realm of NESCAC contenders.
With the stakes high, Williams stood and delivered; indeed, Williams strutted its stuff against Trinity, playing the Bantams off the field in a vintage effort that ended in a 6-1 victory for the Ephmen.
“I was very pleased,” Head Coach Mike Russo said. “I said the key was how we were going to bounce back from the loss last week and we did bounce back. We learned some lessons from the game against Bowdoin and I think it was very good to come back with a resounding win today.”
With multi-goal efforts from Alex Blake ’03, Ryan Olsen ’04 and Sky Riggs ’05, the Ephs slammed the door on the Bantams, who looked as if they did not even belong on the same field as Williams.
Blake’s effort was particularly impressive: Not only did he score two goals – which gives him a goal in each of the Ephs’ five games and ups his season total to 10 – but he also served as the team’s primary playmaker by setting up two other Eph goals.
The Ephs played the ball through Blake in the middle of the field, and the co-captain dished the ball off to his teammates effortlessly and precisely; indeed, early combination play with Olsen added a goal and an assist to each player’s tally and was a harbinger of the kind of day the Bantams had in store.
For his part, Riggs has delivered on the promise he showed late last season. The sophomore has turned into a consistent scoring threat for the Ephs, and his talent will be critical in games against teams intent on putting two defenders on Blake.
What was more encouraging about the effort on Saturday, however, was the solid team defense the Ephs exhibited. Doomsday-theorists about the 2002 edition of men’s soccer look no further than the team’s defensive unit, which has looked shaky in the early going and was exploited in the loss to Bowdoin.
Russo has juggled and rotated players in and out of the backfield, but if Saturday’s game is taken as any kind of indicator it would seem that he has finally found a combination that works.
Russo moved co-captain Dylan Smith ’03 into the backfield to serve as a stabilizing force, and he did not disappoint. Smith’s toughness was contagious in the back, and he seems poised to give the Ephs the backfield presence they lost with the graduation of Marc Williams ’02.
“We moved Dylan into the back row and he did a tremendous job on the defensive end,” Russo said. “We’ve tweaked our defensive system a bit and Dylan is very much a ball-winner – he gives us a toughness in the back, I liked what I saw today.”
The Ephs will leave the friendly confines of Cole Field for their next three games, the first of which is against Keene State on Oct. 1. Keene challenged Williams last season in a game in which the Ephs ultimately came away with a shaky 4-3 victory.
Every game counts of course, particularly the two conference games on the road trip against Bates and Colby, but the game that the Eph faithful have marked on their calendars is the Williams-Middlebury showdown in the Purple Valley on Oct. 12.
Middlebury, which currently has a 2-1-1 record after joining Williams in falling to Bowdoin, is the only team to muster any kind of success against Williams in the past four years.
It was the Panthers who beat the Ephs on Sept. 29, 1998 – the last loss Williams suffered before going on a 51-game unbeaten streak that ended with a loss to Middlebury last Oct. 27. In between those two defeats, the Panthers also managed a quadruple-overtime victory over the Ephmen in the 2000 NESCAC title game.
With three victories over the Ephs in the past four years, the Panthers have proven themselves the closest thing to a competitor to the Ephs’ NESCAC supremacy.
With this win, Williams seemingly announced that it was unwilling to step down from the NESCAC throne without a fight; indeed, if the Ephs are to repeat as NESCAC champions all that is left to do is play like they did against Trinity on Saturday.