Men’s soccer to finish regular season no higher than second

For the first time in the last two seasons, a new NESCAC regular season champion will be crowned, as men’s soccer’s 3-0 loss to their arch-rivals from Amherst (8-3-1; 5-3) coupled with Bowdoin’s (10-2-1; 7-1) 4-0 drubbing of Colby (6-7; 1-7) spelled the end of Williams’ two-year streak of supremacy.

The Ephs turned in a surprisingly lackluster performance against the Lord Jeffs on Saturday. In fairness, inclement conditions are detrimental to the Ephmen’s more technical style of play, but the team never managed to adjust to the circumstances and, more disappointingly, played a brand of soccer that left Head Coach Mike Russo with a bad taste in his mouth.

“For an Amherst game our guys didn’t play with the motivation that they should have,” Russo said. “If you can’t get up for a game against Amherst then that doesn’t bode well; Amherst has got a good team and we needed to match their enthusiasm and commitment and we just didn’t get the job done.

Russo mentioned the poor conditions under which the game was staged under as a factor that undermined his team’s play, but he refused to use the circumstances as an excuse. “The conditions weren’t very good,” he said. “The field was very muddy, but they had to play in it as well – I was disappointed with our performance.”

Williams played Amherst to a nil-nil standstill through the first 45 minutes of soccer, but the Ephs came out on their heels in the second half and allowed the Jeffs to take a 1-0 advantage after a scant 24 seconds of second half-soccer when Pat Garvey’s shot was redirected into the net by teammate Franklin Perry.

The Jeffs made it a 2-0 advantage 10 minutes later when Jeff Cantwell deflected in a shot from Carlo Valdesolo.

With the Ephs desperate to pull off a difficult come-from-behind win in the unfriendly confines of Amherst, Mass., the Jeffs hung tough on defense and put the nail in the coffin in the 88th minute when Joaquin Walker booted his shot into the upper left hand corner of the goal.

While, generally speaking, a road loss to Amherst is understandable, the fashion in which men’s soccer lost seemed to grate on Russo, who felt his team failed to adapt to the conditions dictated by the weather and, worse yet, failed to motivate themselves to rise to the challenge.

Williams had won its previous five contests in shutout victories, the highlight of which was the team’s 3-0 defeat of its perennial rivals from Middlebury.

“I was very pleased with the effort the guys turned in against Middlebury, that’s just the sort of performance we need to put in each time we play,” Russo said. “We’ve been supreme in New England for quite a while, but the other teams are catching up and closing the gap with us – we need to give everything we have every time we go out.”

The Ephs have two games remaining on their regular season schedule, the first a non-conference match against their next-town-over rivals from MCLA which one might playfully refer to as the annual Route 2 grudge-match. The Ephmen were unfazed by the Trailblazers last year, as Ted Giannacopolous ’02 led his team to a 3-1 come-from-behind victory with a hat-trick of goals.

Though Giannacopolous has since graduated, MCLA is unlikely to put up much of a challenge for the Ephs, who will use the game primarily as a tune-up for Saturday’s regular season finale against Wesleyan.

With Alex Blake ’03 leading the way, the Ephmen took it to their Little Three rivals last year, coming away with a 3-0 win on the heels of the co-captain’s two-goal performance.

The Ephs should be expected to come away with a victory over the Cardinals in their Homecoming game, in which case they would secure the second seed for the NESCAC tournament, and consequently, hosting responsibilities for first-round tournament action.

At the end of the day, winning the regular season NESCAC title is of large or small significance depending on how you look at it.

The men’s soccer team is doubtlessly reminding itself that what matters most is who wins the NESCAC tournament, and in large measure that is true. The only caveat is that the winner of the regular season title earns the top seed and therefore both a first-round bye and the benefit of home field advantage.

If Williams can come away with top honors at the NESCAC tournament, the dynasty it has crafted over the past several seasons will remain in fine condition. The Ephs won last year’s NESCAC title game in dominating 5-1 fashion over Mid-dlebury.

This season, however, any number of teams have a legitimate shot at the title with Amherst, Bowdoin, Middlebury, Wesleyan and Williams each fielding highly competitive teams; the competitiveness of the field stands in marked contrast to past seasons, in which Williams was far and away the strongest entry with talented teams from Middlebury nipping at their heels – the Panthers actually won the first NESCAC Championship with a 1-0 quadruple-overtime victory over the Ephs in 2000.

Of course, discussion of the NESCAC tournament is currently premature as the Ephs first need to rebound from this weekend’s disappointing loss this afternoon against MCLA and then again on Saturday against Wesleyan. The opening whistle for the MCLA game is set to sound today at 3:15 p.m.