Men’s soccer answered its critics’ increasingly quiet voices in spectacular form this weekend, defending its NESCAC title with a 3-0 victory over their rivals from Amherst on Sunday afternoon.
The Lord Jeffs had beaten the Ephs earlier in the season by a 3-0 count but that did not matter today as Williams (14-3; 9-2 in the NESCAC) simply had too many guns for Amherst to handle – particularly in the form of standout midfielder Josh Bolton ’06, who picked the perfect time to turn in his finest performance of the season by being directly involved in each of the Ephs’ three goals.
“I was very pleased with the way the boys came out on Sunday after the exhilarating win on Saturday,” Head Coach Mike Russo said. “Amherst never stopped fighting but our boys played well. We did not want to lose to Amherst twice. We felt that we had to avenge the defeat earlier in the season.”
Williams advanced to the title game with a spectacular finish in Satuday’s semi-final against Middlebury, as a goal from Ryan Olsen ’04 with three seconds on the clock sent the game into overtime, and set the stage for a thrilling 2-1 win for the Ephmen.
Against the Lord Jeffs, Williams got on the scoreboard in the 40th minute of play when Bolton found Khari Stephenson ’04 in the box. Stephenson received the ball and sent a blast into the upper right hand corner of the goal.
The pumped-up Ephs came charging out of the gates at the beginning of the second half with a goal 30 seconds into the period â€“ which Russo called “back-breaking” â€“ when Olsen dished the ball off to Bolton from the left flank. The first-year gave the Ephs a 2-0 advantage by sending the ball past Jeff goalkeeper Dan Glenn.
In the final conference game of his illustrious career, striker Alex Blake ’03 put the game away with his goal in the 71st minute. Bolton again was the set-up man, sending the ball to Blake before the Eph superstar chipped the ball over the head of a drawn-out Glenn.
Both Williams and Amherst recorded 17 shots on goal in the contest, and both keepers â€“ Glenn and Eph rookie Nick Armington ’06 â€“ tallied seven saves. Incredibly, the Lord Jeffs racked up 12 corner kicks to the Ephs’ zero, but were unable to convert any of their chances.
“The Middlebury game was like CPR, we got risen from the dead,” Blake said. “We just decided we had nothing to lose, Amherst thought they were going to whip our asses but we took it to them. It was a total team effort, every player got into the game and gave 100 percent.”
Only by the slimmest of margins did Williams ever manage to make it to the championship game, however, as anyone who saw Saturday’s Williams-Middlebury semifinal contest can tell you. The game remained scoreless through the first half, but the smart money must have been on Middlebury beginning in the 41st minute when the Ephmen found themselves a man down following the ejection of Romel Wallen ’04.
And if the Ephs were the underdogs after the 41st minute, they were left for dead when the Panthers broke the ice on the scoring in the 86th minute of play. Kyle Dezotell made it a 1-0 Panther advantage with three and a half minutes remaining, and with the Ephs reeling from the fatigue induced by playing a man down for 45 minutes, an Eph triumph seemed decidedly unlikely.
With Middlebury players preparing to charge the field and embrace their teammates as the clock reported under 10 seconds of soccer remaining in regulation, Armington booted a ball from the half into the middle of the Panther 18-yard box. The “Hail Mary” was met with a scramble of 19 players in front of the Middlebury goal, but Lady Fate directed the ball to Olsen’s foot and the junior pushed the ball into the right side of the net to send the game into OT.
“I got the ball right in front of the goal,” Olsen said. “I was just waiting for the ball to poke out and it came right to me. I flicked it toward the goal and I saw it roll towards the goal and then it just sort of snuck in on right post.
“We worked so hard on Saturday and for us to win that game was amazing, I’ve never seen anything like that in my soccer career. We definitely took that energy with us into the game on Sunday.”
With the momentum in their favor, the Ephs came out swinging to start the overtime period and finally found the goal they were looking for in the 94th minute of play. Perry Kalmus ’03 dished the ball off to Blake who crossed the ball into the box. Blake’s pass found Stephenson laying in wait from seven yards out, and the junior collected the ball and hammered it into the Panther goal to make the Ephs finals-bound.
“Ryan’s goal with three seconds left was the capper on a most exhilarating day,” Head Coach Mike Russo said. “I’m emotionally drained right now â€“ it was a very gratifying win.”
“We were down to 10 men and we outplayed them,” Blake said. “It showed how resilient we are, it showed our never say die mentality. Even though they scored on us, we never believed at any point that we would lose the game, we kept the faith and kept believing in each other â€“ and you know a miracle happened, it was a miracle.”
Williams not only secured the tournament championship this weekend, however, but also an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. The Ephs will host their tournament opener against Salve Regina, the champions of the Commonwealth Coast, on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.
“We don’t have a lot of information at this point because their league has a gag rule restricting their coaches from talking with people outside the conference,” Russo said. “But we do know that Trinity, Tufts and Conn. College have all played and beat them, but they’re not a team we’re about to take lightly.”
“Anything is possible in soccer,” Blake said. “We know that, we saw that last year first hand. All of our guys need to come out to play for 90 minutes. We are going to come out hard, we are going to get the job done.”