MIDDLETOWN, Conn. - The Williams College men's soccer team looked to have the NESCAC championship all but wrapped up in the closing minutes of Sunday's title bout with Middlebury, but a late Panther equalizer forced the Ephs to end it in overtime. The Ephs created an opportunity int eh first overtime session that forced the sixth-seeded Panthers into surrendering an own goal and giving Williams the 2-1 OT victory. The title is the Ephs first NESCAC title since 2006, and it comes with the NESCAC's automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
A two-pronged attack by Williams (14-2-1) forwards junior Gaston Kelly and senior Pierre Meloty-Kapella generated the chaos in the Panther (10-5-1) defense that resulted in the own-goal 6:25 into overtime, giving second-seeded Williams its sixth NESCAC men's soccer tournament title in the 10-year history of the event, with four of those victories coming at the expense of Middlebury.
A serve from the left side by Kelly to the front of the goal was taken by Meloty-Kapella whose volley at the net was met by the middle of the cross bar. The ricochet floated high into the box and a Middlebury defender's attempt to clear it with his head bounced awkwardly, shooting back into the top corner of the net for the Ephs' sudden victory goal.
That thwarted the comeback attempt of the Panthers, who trailed 1-0 for a majority of the game after Williams freshman defender Matt Ratajczak finished off a corner-kick set piece in the 37th minute of the contest for the game's opening tally. Senior forward Peter Houston took the corner for the Ephs and bent the ball in toward a host of traffic in front of the net. Eph junior defender Joe Vella was able to get to it first and redirected it to Ratajczak in front for an easy tap in the goal. The score marked Matt Ratajczak's first collegiate score and it couldn't have come at a bigger time.
The Ephs maintained their lead for nearly 50 minutes, using stifling defensive pressure to blunt the Middlebury attack, while holding the Panthers to 11 shots in the contest. However, the Panthers patience paid off in the 86th minute when they made good on the lone first rate opportunity the Eph defense had allowed them to that point. After fielding a through pass just outside the Williams box, Panther sophomore midfielder Robbie Redmond turned and fired a low missile from 25 yards out that buried itself in lower left inside panel of the net, dramatically equalizing the game at 1-1 with four minutes remaining and ultimately forcing the overtime.
Up until that point Williams had looked on the verge of padding their lead at several points in the second half. After an initial feeling out period following intermission, the Ephs began to assert more and more pressure further into Panther territory. However, a few Williams misfires and several key stops by Middlebury goalkeeper Tim Cahill (4 saves) kept it a one goal lead.
The OT result was just the third time in NESCAC history that the championship has been decided in extra time. Middlebury won the first-ever NESCAC title with a four-overtime win over Williams in 2000, and the Ephs' title in the 2006 season was decided in Williams favor following penalty kicks, also against Middlebury.
Middlebury had previously defeated Williams, 1-0, October 30 in Middlebury, Vt. in the regular-season finale. That loss dropped Williams from the top-seed in the NESCAC tournament, but the Ephs managed to earn it back with their late game heroics against the defending runner-ups from 2008.
This season's automatic spot in the NCAA tournament will mark Williams 15th appearance in the NCAA Division III tournament in 17 seasons of eligibility. The pairings of the 59 NCAA tournament teams will be announced later this evening with opening round games set to begin Nov. 12.
Heading into NCAA tournament play, the Ephs hold a 5-0 nonconference mark for the season, with the conference itself boasting a .830 winning percentage in nonconference play -- further underlining the significance of claiming a NESCAC title.
Middlebury remains solidly in the running for an NCAA at-large bid with as many as four NESCAC teams potentially positioned to a earnspot in the tournament.