Just two years after winning its first national title, No. 6 women’s soccer (22–1–1, 8–1–1 in the NESCAC) once again returned from the NCAA Final Four weekend holding the championship trophy.
The women claimed this year’s crown with 1-0 victories over No. 3 Hardin-Simmons on Friday and No. 4 University of Chicago on Saturday in Greensboro, N.C.
After winning their first four tournament games by an average of three goals, the Ephs needed second-half goals by Alison Lu ’20 on Friday and Natasha Albaneze ’18 on Saturday in tightly-contested battles. The women did not allow a goal in the tournament.
The women prevailed with an 85th-minute goal from Lu over previously-unbeaten Hardin-Simmons in Friday’s semifinal.
The Cowgirls entered the contest with a NCAA-leading 5.14 goals per game and 13 shots on goal per game, but the Ephs limited the opposition to just two shots on goal.
Williams controlled most of the early possession by virtue of precise up-tempo passing. The Ephs finished the period with a 6-0 advantage in shots but did not see great scoring chances.
In the 16th minute, Georgia Lord ’21 played a dangerous cross from the right wing, but the ball skipped just out of the reach of Lu. Kristina Alvarado ’19 drove a hard shot on goal late in the half, drawing a save from Cowgirl goalie Caitlin Christiansen.
After halftime, Hardin-Simmons attacked, earning a corner kick in the 50th minute. The Cowgirls had scored 43 goals off set pieces over the course of the season, and Kristen Parrish, a First Team All-American, had a chance from Morgan McAdams’ delivery. Parrish sent a shot toward the near post, but Eph defender Sarah Kelly ’20 was opportunely positioned and cleared the try off the goal line.
The Ephs continued to push for a breakthrough, and two shots from Lord forced crucial saves from Christiansen, who punched both over the crossbar.
The women found the decider in the 85th minute when defender Liz Webber ’20 sent a cross into the box from the right wing. Lu was first to the ball, and her initial shot deflected off of a Hardin-Simmons defender. The ball bounced back to Lu, however, and she volleyed her second shot across the goal line and into the bottom-left corner.
Williams kept the 1-0 lead until the final whistle. The Ephs finished with a 17-4 edge in shots. Christiansen made nine saves for Hardin-Simmons, while Williams needed just one from Olivia Barnhill ’19.
“The [Cowgirls] put so many numbers behind the ball and do such a good job defending collectively that we needed to switch the point of attack quickly,” head coach Michelyne Pinard said. “We needed, honestly, a little luck on Friday. The ball has to bounce exactly the right way sometimes. Luckily it bounced right onto Alison Lu’s foot and she put it away as she has so many times.”
The semifinal victory set up a title-game meeting with Chicago, which defeated the College of New Jersey, the top seed, in its semifinal. Albaneze’s goal and Barnhill’s strong play in net secured Williams’ second national championship in three years.
The Ephs got off to a strong start, dictating the pace early on. Albaneze picked out Natalie Turner-Wyatt ’19 with a cross in the ninth minute, but Maroon goalkeeper Katie Donovan smothered the ball after Turner-Wyatt’s first touch. In the 22nd minute, Albaneze sent in an early cross from the right wing, and Lu got a foot onto the ball, but Donovan saved it from close range.
Chicago began to take control in the latter part of the half and earned a few scoring chances. Defender Clare Suter played forward Madori Spiker through in the box in the 24th minute. Webber, however, raced across the box to make the tackle, and Kelly cleared. In the 35th minute, Mia Calamari played a through ball to fellow All-American midfielder Jenna McKinney, whose shot landed wide of the post.
The first half finished scoreless, with shots tied at five apiece and shots on goal tied at two.
In the 50th minute, a Chicago counterattack forced Barnhill to make her first one-on-one save of the day. Suter won the ball for the Maroons and started the move, playing the ball forward for Calamari, who played a through ball to Spiker. Barnhill stood as the last line of defense for the Ephs, and she rushed out to deny Spiker just outside the six-yard box.
Albaneze provided the breakthrough in the 57th minute. Tri-captain defender Danielle Sim ’18 had the ball near midfield and picked out Turner-Wyatt on the left side. Turner-Wyatt chipped a through ball past a lunging Maroon defender, and both Albaneze and Lu slipped past the Chicago back line. With plenty of space, Albaneze called off her teammate and knocked the ball past Miranda Malone, Chicago’s substitute goalkeeper.
The goal was Albaneze’s sixth of the tournament, tying a Williams record for most goals scored in an NCAA tournament.
Shortly after the goal, the Ephs went on the attack again as Turner-Wyatt played a cross to Alvarado in the six-yard box. Malone made a strong save to keep Alvarado’s shot out.
In the 61st minute, Chicago began an offensive onslaught that put Williams under duress for the remainder of the contest. On a long ball into the box, Spiker used her strength to get past Sim. Spiker powered a shot on goal, but Barnhill saved with her legs before quickly controlling the rebound.
The Maroons had one of their best chances in the 72nd minute when forward Katie Jasminski snuck behind the back line. After running onto a pass, she shot the ball low, but Barnhill reacted quickly to block. The rebound bounced back toward Jasminski, but Webber knocked it away. With the ball still loose, Kelly and Lord arrived at the ball at the same time as Calamari, preventing the attacker from capitalizing.
The fast pace at which the contest was played began to impact the players as fatigue set in. Yet with a national championship at stake, Chicago continued to send everything forward in search of an equalizer, and Williams fought to defend its lead.
Inside the final 10 minutes, Spiker had a late shot that sailed just over the top-left corner. With five minutes left, Chicago attacked relentlessly down the flanks, and Maddy DeVoe’s cross reached Jasminski in the six-yard box. However, she flicked the ball over the crossbar.
In the 89th minute, the Maroons brought all their players into the box for a corner kick. Webber headed Calamari’s delivery away, but the ball reached Hanna Watkins near the edge of the penalty box. Watkins curled a shot just wide of the post.
The Maroons continued to push in the final moments, but Barnhill caught a cross with 10 seconds left.
The Ephs breathed a sigh of relief, and the clock ran out with the score 1-0 in Williams’ favor. Chicago finished with a 14-12 edge in shots, but the women came away with the victory, thanks in part to six saves from Barnhill.
Pinard heaped praise on the effort her team gave in its most important game of the season.
“We played some of our very best soccer of our season in the first 35 minutes of the Chicago game,” Pinard said. “The rest of the time we played the grittiest I have seen our team play. Combining the two means that we were able to beat a very good team. That Chicago team was the best I have seen in my 20 years.
“The sense of team, purpose and commitment to each other propelled us through the NCAA tournament and was a source of inspiration in the toughest of moments in the Final Four.”
Pinard added that this year’s championship run was particularly memorable. “It was a storybook ending to one of the most enjoyable seasons of my career,” she said. “I will cherish the memories from our 2017 journey for the rest of my life.”
“[The Maroons] have some really talented players we knew we had to account for,” tri-captain midfielder Evan Gancedo ’18 said. “All the little things we practiced during the season [mattered]. Ultimately it’s going to be hard work and sacrifice. Everyone on our team did that and it worked out in our favor.”
Barnhill was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player, and Albaneze was the Most Outstanding Offensive Player. Lu and Sim were also named to the All-Tournament team.
Albaneze was named a Third Team All-American last week, and Sim, the NESCAC Player of the Year, was a First Team choice.
The Ephs graduate Albaneze, Gancedo, Hanna Kaeser ’18, Kate Sands ’18, Sim and tri-captain Jacqueline Simeone ’18.
This year’s senior class has compiled a four-year mark of 82–5–6 at Williams for a .915 winning percentage. They became the first class to win more than 80 games, breaking the mark of 74 wins set by the class of 2017.
The class of 2018 won two national titles, advanced to three Final Fours and made the NCAA quarterfinals all four years.
“I’m super sad about seeing these guys play for the last time,” Pinard said. “What they did for this program is incredible. The level of play they envisioned and created was a lot of fun to watch, and I’m going to miss them.”