Men’s soccer secures Div. III NCAA tournament bid

Mohammed Rashid ’16 had one goal and one assist in the men’s 2-1 victory over Wesleyan. - Photo Courtesy of Amherst College Office of Public Affairs
Mohammed Rashid ’16 had one goal and one assist in the men’s 2-1 victory over Wesleyan. – Photo Courtesy of Amherst College Office of Public Affairs

After defeating Middlebury 3-2 at home on Nov. 2 in an exciting NESCAC first round match-up, men’s soccer (11-6, 6-4 in the NESCAC) traveled to Amherst for the semifinals and finals of the NESCAC tournament. The semifinal game on Saturday pitted Williams against second-seeded Wesleyan in what was a must-win matchup for both teams. The Ephs ultimately prevailed in another thriller as their offense once again came to life in a 2-1 victory. The NESCAC final on Sunday, a rematch of last year’s title game, added another chapter in the storied Williams-Amherst rivalry. Looking to avenge their double overtime loss on Sept. 21 and make a statement against the No. 5 team in the division, the Ephs fought hard but succumbed again, this time 1-0.

On Saturday, the team was hard at work against Little Three rival Wesleyan in a semifinal matchup. The Ephs came out of the gates firing, as Malcolm Moutenot ’17 chipped the ball over a sliding defender and slipped past another defender as he raced down the left flank. However, his cross was cleared away before it reached a waiting Rashid at the back post.

The Ephs first goal came in the 34th minute. Forward Jonathan Westling ’16 dribbled right at the heart of the Wesleyan defense, showing good strength to hold off a defender before laying the ball off to Mohammed Rashid ’16. Rashid streaked past the defense and slotted the ball under the arm of the onrushing Wesleyan goalkeeper to put the men up 1-0.

The Ephs entered halftime with a 1-0 lead and continued their strong play in the second half. A pair of crosses by Moutenot and Andres Burbank-Crump ’15 within the first 10 minutes nearly connected for what would have been surefire goals. In the 68th minute the Ephs created another excellent opportunity. Westling again dribbled right at the heart of the Wesleyan defense and just as it seemed he was about to get tackled, he slipped a lovely through ball to the onrushing Rashid. The chance seemed almost identical to the first half goal, but the Wesleyan goalie was a fast learner and dropped low to stop Rashid’s shot.

In the 77th minute Wesleyan nearly tied the game, but co-captain Peter Morrell ’14 made an impressive kick save with his outstretched left foot. The clearance following the save bounced serendipitously to Rashid who found himself one-on-one with the Wesleyan goalkeeper. He was again denied by a top-class save. Five minutes later, the Ephs got an all-important second goal. Rashid and the center midfielder Matt Muralles ’15 played a nice one-two down the left wing. Rashid raced off down the flank and laid the ball off again to Muralles who had followed him. Muralles continued his fine form this season, smashing the ball past a helpless Cardinals keeper and giving the Ephs a 2-0 lead at 82:39.

Wesleyan fought back, however, pulling a goal back just two minutes later to tighten the game to 2-1. The Eph defense saw out the rest of the game, preserving an extremely important 2-1 victory and sending the men to the finals.

In the first half of the NESCAC final against Amherst on Sunday, both teams played very hesitantly, unwilling to give up the first goal. About three minutes in, Amherst had one of its few chances of the first half as a header from a corner kick caromed off the post. Unfortunately for the Ephs, one of their core players and a backbone of the defense, center defensive midfielder Troy Ritter ’16, was injured in the aftermath of the corner. He did not return and was replaced by Chris Conder ’15.

A few minutes later, the Ephs created their best chance of the first half. Forward Matt Kastner ’14, who was the Ephs’ most dangerous threat all day, lobbed a ball over the defense for Rashid. Rashid dribbled around the Amherst goalkeeper, but he left himself with an impossible angle and his shot was cleared off the line. The first half ended 0-0.

The Jeffs struck first a mere four minutes after the start of the second half. An Amherst free kick was lobbed toward the back post where it was punched away by Eph keeper Morrell. However, his punch stayed in the box as he went to retrieve it. There was a bit of confusion, and an Amherst player headed the ball away from Morrell toward another Amherst player. A sliding Luke Pierce ’15 blocked the ensuing shot, but the rebound fell to Jeff senior Max Fikke, who netted the decisive goal to put his team up 1-0 at 48:15.

In the 56th minute, the Ephs were denied a penalty, as Kastner had his legs swept from under him just as he was about to shoot. Williams, though, did not give up, continuing to press, and in the 69th minute, the men created their best opportunity of the day. Rashid laid the ball off for co-captain Dan Lima ’14 at the top of the 18, and Lima fired a beautiful curling shot. However, the Jeff keeper made a spectacular fingertip save to keep the Jeffs ahead 1-0.

As the clock wound down, the Ephs became more desperate, but they managed just a few chances as Amherst saw out the victory. To add to their woes, free kick specialist Burbank-Crump was injured in a 50-50 challenge late in the game. The 1-0 loss crowned Amherst as NESCAC champions.

“Amherst was a tough game,” Head Coach Mike Russo said. “They are very athletic and physical, and we knew it was going to be a battle. We were disappointed with the result but obviously ecstatic that we got an opportunity to host a game on Saturday in the NCAA tournament.”

The victory against Wesleyan helped catapult the men into a welcomed NCAA Div. III tournament berth. Despite the loss in the final, there was a silver lining, as Williams will host Elms this Saturday at 1:30 p.m. on Cole Field in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

“This season, we had one game where we had a comfortable lead,” Russo said. “Every other game was very hotly contested. Our schedule was rated the third most difficult in the country, and I think that more than anything else will prepare us for what’s to follow.”