Women’s soccer captures third national championship in four years

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In Greensboro, N.C., women’s soccer defeated Christopher Newport and Middlebury in the semifinal and finals, respectively, winning their second consecutive NCAA Div. III Championship title. Photo courtesy of Sports Information.

Women’s soccer successfully defended the NCAA Div. III championship, its third in four years. Williams defeated Christopher Newport  (CNU) 2-0 in the semifinals. Then, on Saturday, the women defeated conference rival Middlebury 1-1 via penalty kicks to claim their third title in four years.

Sarah Scire ’20 scored a goal in each half Friday night as the women blanked high-powered CNU at UNC-Greensboro Stadium.

The Ephs broke CNU’s 16-game win streak and advanced to the NCAA Championship because of a tremendous defensive effort. Goalkeeper Olivia Barnhill ’19 called it their best effort of the season. The women stifled the Captains’ attack by controlling posessions and disurpting passing lanes, capitalizing on Barnhill’s four saves. CNU outshot the Ephs 19-11 in the contest, but each team had just four shots on goal.

“We knew coming into this game [CNU] had incredible individual attacking ability,” Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard said. “And they were exactly what we thought – they were incredible. Our goal was to deny them the ball whenever possible and have incredibly tight cover whenever possible. I thought we did a great job of that from front to back. Our effort, not just our physical effort, but our communication and ability to consistently deny them opportunities was amazing given their ability.”

The Captains had not been shut out once their entire season prior to Friday night. In the game’s 10th minute, they nearly got on the board as All-American Riley Cook, who had scored in 11 straight games coming into the semifinal, rocketed a shot behind Barnhill. However, it was quickly whistled off-sides. CNU kept up the pressure, and just five minutes later, a Cook shot was rifled just over the crossbar from point-blank range.

The Ephs stayed composed and began to possess the ball a bit more as the half went on. Midway through, Ilana Albert ’21 gained control at midfield and made a run to the Captains’ goal, ripping a shot from about 30 yards out. The ball hit off the upper arm of a CNU defender at the top of the box and caromed to the right, where the opportunistic Scire raced onto it and quickly flicked a difficult-angle shot back to her left that nestled itself inside the left post with 22:33 remaining in the half for a 1-0 lead.

“Ilana made an incredible,  dynamic run inside, and I just continued my run like I’ve been told to do 1000 times,” Scire said. “And it worked out for the best.”

With 15:22 left in the first half, CNU’s senior All-American Gabby Gillis found some loose space, deftly moving around an Eph defender and firing a shot from 22 yards out that went just wide left. The Ephs began to mount counterattacks, and one in the 39th minute nearly made it 2-0, as Mikayla Kappes ’21 crossed a ball into the box to Aspen Pierson ’21, whose hard shot was blocked. The ball caromed back to Eph All-American defender Sarah Kelly ’20, and she ripped a beautiful shot toward the upper 90 on the far right that Captains’ keeper Haley Eiser made a leaping effort to push over the crossbar.

CNU came out with its engine on high to start the second half and nearly gained the equalizer just 69 seconds in when Maddie Cochran took advantage of a bad clear and took a shot from inside the 18. Barnhill raced out to made a beautiful sliding save, and, after a few harrowing moments of the ball bouncing freely around the Ephs’ six, Maria Chapman ’22 was able to clear it out of danger.

The Ephs answered with their own opportunity five minutes in when Lauren Brown ’19 delivered a beautiful through ball that Scire dashed in for, only to be beat to the ball by a sliding Eiser a moment before she could reach it. Just over two minutes later, Liz Girvan ’22 gained control of the ball at the midfield stripe and sent another dazzling through ball toward the Captains’ goal. Scire turned on her jets, moved inside to the left of a CNU defender and reached the ball at the top of the box. Eiser had come racing out as the play developed. Scire flicked a shot to the right that beat the goalkeeper and bounced into an unattended net.

“Girvan put an incredible through ball right to my feet,” Scire said. “That’s stuff we’ve been working on all season; it comes with a lot of hard work and a lot of failure. So the fact that it worked out was a product of that hard work finally paying off. I’m incredibly proud of my team.”

Down two goals, CNU pressed forward, but the Ephs held strong and had several dangerous opportunities to make it a three-goal advantage. The back line of Chapman, Kelly, Nkem Iregbulem ’20 and Liz Webber ’20 was supported beautifully by midfielders Pierson and Victoria Laino ’21, who not only stopped dynamic runs, but blocked shot after shot. However, somehow the Ephs found another gear defensively and, after a Cochran header that Barnhill stopped with 17:44 left, did not allow a shot on goal the remainder of the game.

“Our defensive effort was outstanding,” Barnhill said. “Something we’ve been working hard on all year and really prided ourselves on, is how hard we work and how tough we are in our one-on-one defending.”

“I think we were able to attack because we were defending so well,” Laino said. “I think coming into this game, we knew [winning the ball] was going to be key. They obviously have really amazing players who can take shots from distance and are also really good on the dribble. I think in the second half especially, we adjusted slightly and had a little tighter cover, so we did a better job denying them the ball or, if they got the ball, denying them the shot.”

The women played conference rival Middlebury in the national championship game Saturday evening. It was the fourth time in five years the Ephs have played in the national championship game. The Ephs and Panthers split a pair of 1-0 decisions this season, with the Ephs triumphing on Cole Field in the regular-season finale for both teams and the Panthers taking the NESCAC Tournament championship game by a one-goal margin in a game played at Farley-Lamb Field.

The final minutes of the game were a fitting end to the women’s season. There stood netminder Barnhill in the steady pouring rain, peering in at Middlebury midfielder Clare Robinson. One penalty kick. Stop it and the Ephs are national champions. If you know Barnhill, you know the ending. Diving to her right, she got just enough of Robinson’s shot to deflect it off the left post. Game over, season over, the women were national champions once again – their third time in four years. Williams became the first women’s soccer team to repeat as national champions since 2011-12,  when Messiah accomplished the feat. Officially, Saturday’s title was a 1-1 win for the Ephs, with the deciding 3-2 score coming in penalty kicks. The Ephs finished with a 19-1-4 mark, while the Panthers completed their season at 19-2-3.

“So many thoughts are going through my head, but really just appreciation of this team and how hard they were willing to fight for this,” Pinard said. “Their evolution competitively though the season was incredible. It’s really challenging to come off of a national championship, and I think there were high expectations. When things weren’t smooth right away, this team had an opportunity to fall apart, and they didn’t. They stayed tough, they stayed tight, they stayed together.”

The Ephs received a goal from Pierson in the game’s 28th minute. Georgia Lord ’21 dribbled up the left side and sent a cross into the box. Albert one-touched it to the right side, where Pierson ripped a left-footed shot that was just out of the diving reach of Panther goalie Ursula Alwang on the right post.

Williams held that lead for the following 50 minutes, until an own goal by the Ephs tied the game at 1-1. An Eph defender looked to clear the ball from inside the six-yard goalie box, but her attempt deflected off Barnhill and trickled into the back of the net. Fueled by the equalizer, the Panthers buzzed around the Ephs’ goal for the final 12 minutes in regulation, but the Ephs forced the game into overtime and gained back the momentum, outshooting the Panthers 5-1 in the extra time.

Early in the first overtime session, the Ephs had a pair of scoring threats, but Alwang punched a Girvan shot over the crossbar and corralled the second one on a corner kick. The Panthers looked for the game-winning tally with just over a minute left, but Eliza Van Voorhis’ shot went just wide of the far post. The Ephs then nearly won the game in the closing seconds of the first extra session, as a cross inside the penalty box found the feet of Scire, but Alwang raced out and deflected Scire’s shot with her foot to send the match to a second overtime.

The game went to penalty kicks, a familiar place for the Ephs and Barnhill. Barnhill has had a solid career at Williams stopping penalties, and Saturday’s national championship game was no different. She saved the first and third shots she saw. Laino and Pierson made back-to-back penalty kicks, and after four kicks for each team, the penalty kick score was knotted 2-2.

Rain Condie ’22 took the Ephs’ fifth kick and sent a beautifully placed ball along the ground into the lower left-hand corner of the goal. Barnhill then made her stop of Robinson’s shot, and the celebration began.

“It’s pretty surreal to win back-to-back and to have three of our four years be national championship years,” Barnhill said. “I think that’s just a testament to my class, a testament to this program, a testament to this team and all our players. It’s never guaranteed. It’s never easy. It’s ridiculously hard in fact. Every year we aspire to do this, and we’ve been incredibly successful. I think it’s because of how much this team wants to be together and wants to win together rather than for themselves. I will be eternally grateful to have had these four years with these people and this program.”

This was the last game in Eph uniform for Barnhill, Brown, Hollinger, Kristina Alvarado ’19, Madison Feeney ’19, Dawn Penso ’19 and Natalie Turner-Wyatt ’19.