WILLIAMSTOWN, MA — 269. That was the number, the number of minutes the Ephs had been repelled from the Panthers' goal mouth. 269 minutes that the Panther back line stood up to the formidable Eph front line. But, having not beaten the Panthers in regular or extra time since 2010, try as they might, the Panthers were not keeping out the Eph attack on Senior Day at Cole Field.
Sophomore Kristi Kirshe ended the 269-minute drought just past the fifty-minute mark. After a series of corner kicks on the left side, the Ephs won a throw-in deep down the left wing, which junior Mai Mitsuyama took quickly to senior Alison Magruder, and it was destined, destined to be a senior on Senior Day, to send a beautiful cross into the center of the box, right onto the leaping head of Kirshe, whose perfect, looping header rose over the outstretched arms of freshman Panther goalkeeper Emily Eslinger, before dipping back under the crossbar and bulging the back of the Panther's net.
But Kirshe's second goal of the weekend and 10th of the season, tying fellow Eph sophomore Audrey Thomas at the top of the NESCAC leaderboard, didn't tell the whole story of the tough, physical battle that took place in the midfield between the Panthers and the Ephs on Sunday.
The battle started from the opening whistle, as Thomas won a free kick about 30 yards out on the right side of the Panther goal in the second minute, allowing for Mitsuyama to send an enticing ball to the back post, that evaded multiple Ephs and Panthers, including Eslinger's outstretched arms, until ultimately falling mere inches away from the feet of Eph senior defender, Lilly Wellenbach, but a last-ditch defensive effort by senior Katlyn Casey sent the ball rocketing out of danger before Wellenbach could stab home into an empty net.
The Ephs came close to opening the scoring again in the nineteenth minute, as Thomas showed off her pace and skill on the ball, weaving through several Panther defenders before sliding a through ball toward junior Crystal Lewin on the right side of the Panther penalty area. Lewin took a touch and rounded the on-rushing Eslinger, but the tight angle and recovering defenders forced her into skying a shot that went well over the crossbar.
The Panthers had their first good look of the game ten minutes later, when senior Claire Nishioka's high pressure forced an Eph turnover in their own defensive third, leaving a brief moment where it looked like she might be one-on-one with Eph senior keeper Hannah Van Wetter, but the recovering center-back pairing of Wellenbach and junior Zoe Trutner were able to block Nishioka's shot and then knock the ball out of danger.
Although the Ephs dominated the possession and chances for the first half hour of the game, the Panthers began to see more of the ball in the dying minutes of the first half, as a series of quick passes around the Eph penalty area forced the Ephs into some stout defending that ultimately saw Panther junior Hannah Robinson pull up from twenty yards to fire a rather tame effort over Van Wetter's bar.
In the dying moments of the first half, the Panthers won a free kick 25 yards out on the left side of Van Wetter's goal, which sophomore Katherine Hobbs lined up, but she could do more than simply blast a ball into the intimidating Eph defensive wall, sending the game into halftime at 0-0.
Shortly after halftime, Kirshe notched her NESCAC-leading seventh conference goal of the season, but the Ephs still needed to survive almost forty minutes against a Panther team that they had not held scoreless in nearly three years.
In the 65th minute, it looked like the Panthers might have just found their equalizer, as a communication mix-up between the Eph defenders and Van Wetter saw Van Wetter rush off her line to collect a ball that a defender made an attempt to clear; however, the failed clearance fell to Panther junior Jamie Soroka, who made an attempt at slotting a ball around the pairing of Van Wetter and Wellenbach, but her effort could not elude the outstretched leg of Wellenbach parrying it away from the open net.
The next chance to equalize for the Panthers came fourteen minutes later, when the Panthers won another free kick in a dangerous area, just to the right of Van Wetter's goal. The ball was sent into the box by senior Sophia Kligler, but the Ephs managed to clear and initiate a counter of their own that saw Eph freshman Hanna Kaeser win a corner for the Ephs on the right side.
Mitsuyama sent another one of her textbook crosses into the center of the Panther box, which sophomore Maddie Swarr managed to chest toward goal, but a two-goal Eph lead was denied only by the crossbar, as it sent the ball back into the penalty area for a Panther to clear out of danger.
The remaining ten minutes of the affair saw the Ephs secure their 1-0 margin of victory and ninth clean sheet of the season by burning valuable seconds off the clock through the experienced leadership of Magruder, wisely taking the ball to the Panthers' defensive corner flags, leaving the Panthers with not much to do except watch the seconds trickle down to zero.
After the game, Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard commented on the great effort made by her team to pull out the 1-0 win: "That was just unbelievable soccer for 90 minutes, both halves. This was just what it's all about, playing on Cole Field on Senior Day against a great team. We didn't know that we'd get on the board, let alone score first, but we worked so hard out there, creating chances in the second half especially. Middlebury's ball movement in the middle-third is as good as it gets, and that made us pretty uncomfortable at times. Settling down a little bit in the second half and seeing a little bit more of the ball made all the difference in the world for us."
The Panthers (8-6, NESCAC 4-5) have only one game left in their regular season, home against Wesleyan next Saturday with an 11 AM kickoff time, as they look to ensure themselves of a spot in the NESCAC tournament.
The Ephs (12-1, NESCAC 7-1), on the other hand, have a pair of games left to play, but both are on the road, where they look to put pressure on arch-rivals Amherst, who are in the poll-position for hosting the semifinals and finals of the NESCAC tournament. If the Ephs are able to close out their season with two wins, then any misstep by Amherst would see the hosting rights for the semis and finals of the NESCAC tournament fall to the Ephs. The first of these two remaining away games will be next Saturday against Bates with an 11 AM kickoff time.