AMHERST, MA — A trip down memory lane, that's what this NCAA tournament has been for the Ephs, a trip down memory lane.
After a five-loss regular season and a loss in the finals of the NESCAC tournament to rival Amherst, it seemed more than likely that the Ephs had played their final game of the 2013 campaign.
But faith was rewarded. The Ephs' tough schedule garnered them an at-large bid into the tournament, in spite of the six losses.
And they didn't disappoint. First, they brushed by their first and second round matches with four goals in each game, a feat that they had only managed against non-conference opponent Babson at the beginning of the season, and junior Chris Conder assisted four of those eight goals.
Then the déjà vu began. Brandeis in the Sweet Sixteen at Amherst. A goal early from Conder silenced the traveling fans of the favored Judges and saw the Ephs to a 2-0 victory.
Then it was Amherst in the Elite Eight; the third time the two teams have faced off this year, just as it was the third time they had faced off last year. Each time leading up to the Elite 8, Williams had failed to put a goal past keeper Thomas Bull. And then again even in last year's Elite Eight, they failed to beat Bull, just those four, precious penalty kicks that won them a spot in the Final Four.
The third time seemed to be the right time for the Ephs because not even the rankings, not even the home-field advantage, and not even the 40 mph, bone-chilling gusts blowing from one goal to the other could knock the Ephs off memory lane, as the Ephs handed the Lord Jeffs their first loss in 40 games over two years, with the lone goal coming from none other than Chris Conder, earning the Ephs a spot in the Final Four for the second year in a row and for the sixth time in Mike Russo's tenure as head coach.
The goal came in the 78th minute off a free kick, after both keepers had done well to keep the game scoreless. Mohammed Rashid possessed the ball on the left side of the field and centered the ball to Muralles just outside of the penalty area, about twenty yards from goal. Muralles looked to blast a shot on target but was slashed from behind as he pulled the trigger by a Jeff defender. Conder and Rashid lined up over the ensuing free kick, leaving both Bull and the Jeff defenders guessing which way the ball would be hit. Conder took the kick and launched a left-footed, curling beauty around both the Jeff defensive wall and the outstretched gloves of the diving Bull, burying in the upper-left corner of the goal, snapping the nearly eleven hours of soccer that the Ephs hadn't scored against the Jeffs.
The game started off at a frenetic pace as the Jeffs started the game attacking with the wind at their backs, earning a corner in the very first minute of the game. Senior Max Fikke sent the ball into the heart of the penalty area, looking for sophomore Greg Singer, but junior Chris Seitz did well to keep Singer in check and head the ball out of danger.
Three minutes into the game, the Ephs created their first good chance of the game, as sophomore Mohammed Rashid controlled the ball at the top of the Jeffs' penalty area before he tapped a perfect through ball to fellow sophomore Jonathan Westling on the left side of the box. Bull bravely rushed out to meet Westling and did very well to block Westling's rocket of a shot out of danger.
The Jeffs finally were able to engineer a chance in the 23rd minute, when Fikke took a long throw-in into the box from the right sideline. The Ephs' supporters had their hearts in their mouths for several moments as the ball rattled around the box and came within inches of senior Julien Aoyama's boot before being smacked away by sophomore Geoff Danilack.
Danilack's clearance fell kindly to junior Matt Muralles on the right side of midfield. Muralles immediately began to drive toward Bull's goal on the counter and fed Rashid beautifully on the right side of the penalty area, but Rashid hesitated a few seconds too many, allowing for Bull to close him down and save his shot with relative ease.
More nervous moments for the Ephs came in the 32nd minute when the Jeffs had another cross sent in after some great work from Fikke down the left side of the field. Fikke was once again looking for the big man Singer, but his ball flirted too much with senior keeper Peter Morrell's goal mouth, luring Morrell out to take the cross himself. As Morrell elevated to grab the ball, Singer upended him and put the ball in the back of the net, but the referee's whistle blew for the foul, disallowing the goal.
Three minutes later, Muralles forced Bull to make his best save of the game. Muralles found himself with plenty of space for a shot about 28 yards from goal and didn't hesitate, layering a right-footed shot on target that was curling away from Bull's outstretched arms. Still, somehow, Bull was able to stop the shot at a full stretch, leaving the traveling fans to wonder if Bull could be beaten.
Bull's incredible hands did not stop the Ephs from trying, however, as they created another half-chance six minutes later when Rashid was fouled by Singer near the left corner flag. Rashid took the free kick quickly, rolling the ball out to Conder about 25 yards away from goal on the left side. Conder blasted a shot that forced Bull onto the ground once again to parry the ball away from the target.
The Ephs gladly took their 0-0 deadlock into halftime, knowing they had the wind behind them in the second half.
It was the Jeffs, however, that had the first good looking chance to score in the second half in the 54th minute. Aoyama made a wonderful knifing run with the ball through the right side of the Eph back line, pulling up ten yards from goal to shoot across the face of the goal, but Morrell showed off his own great skill as he stopped the low shot with a perfect dive to his right side.
Amherst's best chance of the game to break the deadlock fell to Aoyama again just three minutes. Fikke's long throw-in to the center of the penalty area rattled around for several moments until falling to the feet of Aoyama on the right side of the six-yard box, but somehow Aoyama could not manage to steer his tap-in on target, rolling it wide-right of Morrell's goal and allowing the Eph faithful to exhale.
Seemingly energized by the golden opportunity missed, the Eph attack began to get a head of steam.
In the 69th minute, an incredible effort by freshman Malcolm Moutenot in the right corner resulted in Moutenot coming away with the ball and sending in a dangerous-looking cross to the back post. The ball eluded the heads of everyone, but Conder came in out of nowhere to put the ball back in the box. Conder's cross to the near post left Bull confused on what to do, forcing him to safely knock the ball out for an Eph corner that would eventually be cleared.
As the Ephs gathered momentum, it set the stage for Conder's gorgeous, game-winning free kick, and the moment will not be soon forgotten, as Hitchcock Field became a contrast of pure ecstasy and whole-hearted dejection.
With the lead in-hand, the Ephs chose to play possession ball in the corners, rather than go for the killing blow, but the combination of Rashid, Moutenot, and the eternally industrious senior Matt Kastner effectively left the Jeffs with nothing to do but watch the seconds and their season tick away.
Last-ditch efforts proved useless as Morrell and the Eph back line earned their eighth, and most important, clean sheet of the season.
After the game, Eph head coach Mike Russo was speechless: "I have no words. That tells it all, absolutely impossible. Even into the wind, we played well. Our main goal was to keep them off the board, and that is exactly what we did. Great free kick by Conder. What else is there? Having to fill in for Andres [Burbank-Crump], he stepped in and showed incredible leadership. He has just been fantastic."
Conder was also in a state of complete shock after the game: "I saw them set the wall up in front of me, and it was just exactly like I had done in practice. It was the only way I was ever going to go at it, and I guess it just went in. It hasn't really sunk in yet, I don't think."
The Ephs outshot the Jeffs for the first time this season and by a margin of 13 to 8, with 6 shots on goal to just the 2 for the Jeffs. The teams were even on corners at 4 apiece, but the Ephs had 19 fouls to the Jeffs' 14.
The Ephs are now at the end of memory lane, however, losing last year in the Final Four to Ohio Northern. If they are to continue, they must pave their own way, but that won't stop them because they are into the Final Four again. They await the winner of Franklin & Marshall and Messiah, and the game will be played Friday, December 6th at 8:30 PM in San Antonio, Texas.