Men’s soccer makes it five in a row, remains locked in tie for first

With shutout victories in their last five games, men’s soccer (9-2; 7-1 in the NESCAC) has not only officially caught fire, but more importantly has proven that its defense, the team’s biggest question mark in the early going, can lead the Ephs to victory just the same as the offense.

Indeed, Williams posted narrow 2-0 and 1-0 wins over Tufts and Springfield, respectively, this past week; those victories came on the heels of the Ephs’ biggest victory of the season, a convincing 3-0 triumph over Middlebury on Oct. 12.

Saturday’s win over Tufts – the most recent in the Ephs’ skein – kept the squad in a tie for first place in the NESCAC standings with Bowdoin, which is responsible for the Ephs’ lone conference loss of the season.

Win streak or no win streak, however, the most promising feature of the Ephs’ recent success has come out of the backfield, where a group of defenders that looked lost at points in the early going this year has matured into a unit that commands respect. Indeed, thanks in part to the solid defensive play, the Ephs have out-shot their opponents 91-47 over their last five games and out-scored them by a margin of 12-0.

“I was pleased with our guys in the back, especially Dylan Smith [’03],” Head Coach Mike Russo said. “Our defenders are getting pretty confident, and we were able to get the win even though our attack was a little sloppy.”

In the win over Tufts, Ryan Olsen ’04 scored the game-winner at 7:34, assisted by Alex Blake ’03, and Blake added a late insurance goal to seal the win for the Ephs. Williams goalkeeper Nick Armington ’06 collected three saves for the victors.

Blake set up the first goal, penetrating the left side of the Jumbo penalty area before feeding Olsen 10 yards away from the goal. Olsen then ripped a shot into the lower right-hand corner of the net to put the Ephs on the board.

The game remained 1-0 for over 70 minutes, until Armington blasted a wind-aided goal kick over the Jumbo defensive line down the left side of the field. The fastest player on the field, Blake chased down the loose ball, then wove his way through several defenders before depositing the ball into the back of the net.

“We played pretty passionless soccer after the first goal, which I wasn’t happy with,” Russo said. “But our defense stayed strong and kept them off the board.”

Earlier in the week it was Josh Bolton ’06 who made winners of the Ephs as his goal in the 71st minute of play gave men’s soccer all the scoring it would need in a 1-0 victory over the Springfield College Pride (5-8-1).

Riding high on the heels of a 3-0 win over Middlebury, Williams was taken down a peg or two by the stingy Pride defense; indeed, though the Ephs would ultimately ring off 22 shots, only seven of those came in the first half, none of which forced Pride goalkeeper Tom Bowden to come up with a save.

The Ephs fared better in the second half, creating 15 shots, five of which challenged Bowden, but 25 minutes into the half the score remained stuck at nil-nil.

With the Ephs anxious not to settle for a tie, Blake lined up for a corner kick as the game crept into its 71st minute. Blake’s corner found Khari Stephenson ’03 in the box who headed the ball desperately toward the Springfield netting. Bowden got a glove on Stephenson’s header, but fortunately for Williams, the ball ricocheted directly to Bolton who slammed it home for the 1-0 lead.

Robbie Kirsher ’03, who has seen limited time in net this year following the emergence of Armington, played the entire game in the net for Williams.

There was no love lost between the men’s soccer teams from Williams and Middlebury (4-3-2) as the teams squared off on a drizzly afternoon down at Cole Field on Oct. 12, but in the end skill proved more important than swagger as the Ephs came away with a 3-0 victory – their most important triumph of the season. Stephenson and Blake did all the scoring for Williams in the contest.

“This was the kind of battle we needed,” Russo said after the game. “They’re a very strong opponent, a very strong team, they’ll be there at the end of the year I’m sure and I thought we played really well today.

“Coming into today we all saw this game as a real turning point in the year for us – we needed this victory, we said anything less would be unacceptable and we did what we needed to do. We respect them a lot and we’re delighted to get this victory.”

The Ephs got off to a fast start with a goal in the 14th minute off the powerful right foot of Stephenson. As would be a theme throughout the day, Middlebury defenders fouled Blake to bring him down just outside the 18-yard box, setting up a direct kick for Williams; Stephenson delivered a boot into the upper right hand corner of the net, over the heads of the leaping Panther defenders to make it 1-0.

The rest of the half saw many opportunities open up for both teams, with each jockeying for the score. After an ugly scene in which members of each team engaged in a scuffle that netted a series of yellow cards for either side with two minutes remaining in the first half, Blake beat two defenders to receive a pass from Olsen; Blake collected the ball and pushed passed the Panther goalkeeper, David Lindholm, before sending it home for the score.

The Panthers were unable to put anything together throughout the second half, but seemed to have an opportunity to avoid the shutout with 20 second remaining in regulation.

A corner kick from the left flank was headed out of the Eph 18 and came to rest at Blake’s feet. Blake raced down the field past two defenders and ultimately Lindholm himself before sending home the Ephs’ third and final score of the day, much to the delight of the 200-plus fans in attendance.

The Ephs are on a roll, but they can not afford to get over-confident as they prepare for Saturday’s showdown with Amherst (7-3-1; 4-3 in the NESCAC). The Jeffs currently find themselves in a two-way tie for fourth place in the conference, but records mean little in a Williams-Amherst game.

Amherst will bring its A-game on Saturday, and with their home fans in attendence cheering them on things could get interesting. Last season, Williams came away with a come-from-behind 2-1 win in the Purple Valley, in a game where the Ephmen benefited from home-field advantage. The match is the final regular season road contest for the Ephs; kickoff is scheduled for 11 p.m.

After stopping by MCLA for its annual Route 2 showdown, the Ephs will return to Cole Field on Nov. 2 for its final regular season home contest with Wesleyan.