WILLIAMSTOWN, MA --- It always seems to be a tense affair between the Ephs and the Panthers, and the first of two NESCAC Semifinals match-ups on Cole Field Saturday was no different. The physicality and talent of both teams shined through, but a moment of chance and a moment of brilliance saw the Ephs claim a place in the NESCAC Finals on Sunday.
The moment of chance came in the 72nd minute for the Ephs, as a Panther back-pass to freshman keeper Emily Eslinger, allowed for Eph senior Alison Magruder to nab the ball off Eslinger on the right side of goal, take a couple of touches, and then bury the ball into the back of an empty net. Magruder's third goal of the season, all of which have come in the last four games, allowed the Eph contingent of supporters a huge sigh of relief.
The Panthers responded to the first goal well, earning a free kick in a dangerous area following a corner, but the more open Middlebury side proved had to open up to the Williams counter much more then they would've liked.
The moment of brilliance came just five minutes later, as Eph sophomore Kristi Kirshe produced her 11th goal of the season at the end of a quick and powerful counterattack. Eph junior Crystal Lewin collected an attempted clearance by the Panthers on the right wing after a probing run by Eph sophomore Audrey Thomas, only to then immediately send an inch-perfect cross back into the box to match the run of Kirshe, who elevated over her defender and smashed a beautiful header past Eslinger to double the Ephs' lead.
The Ephs' two goals in a five-minute span belied the number of chances that either side produced in the first half.
One of the Ephs' few chances at goal in the first half came on their very first foray forward just inside of two minutes. Lewin received a ball from Magruder on the left side of the field and carved open the Panther defense, looking for the knifing run of Thomas, who ran onto the ball and pushed her way forward into the Panther penalty area, only to find her dangerous-looking cross cut out smartly by senior Panther defender Molly Parizeau.
The Panthers had their first real chance of the game in the 23rd minute, as senior Carter Talgo won a corner on the right side for the Panthers, taken by fellow senior Moria Sloan. Sloan's out-swinging cross into the box deflected to the top of the box, falling kindly for junior Hannah Robinson, but Kirshe did well to get in front of the ball and body-block Robinson's rocketed shot away from danger.
The best chance of the half for the Ephs came in the 28th minute, as Kirshe played an incisive pass between the Panther central defenders to match the run of senior Louisa Costa, but with only the keeper to beat, Costa couldn't quite lift her shot over the onrushing Eslinger, allowing her to deny Costa spectacularly to keep the score level.
The Ephs, however, wouldn't feel too unlucky for long, as the woodwork of Eph senior keeper Hannah Van Wetter's goal came through to deny the Panthers of their best opportunity to score on the day. In the 38th minute, Sloan took another corner from the right side of the Panther attack, sending a ball to the back post toward senior Sophia Kligler, where she connected her head with the ball, beating both her defender and Van Wetter, but she couldn't quite beat the crossbar, as it ensured that the score remained level at 0-0 heading into halftime.
Not much changed between the first and the second halves, as both teams were still pressing for goal to break the deadlock However, the Panthers looked the more likelier of the two sides to open up the scoring in the minutes before the two goals.
The Panthers won a free kick near the left corner flag, just four minutes before Magruder's opening goal. Sloan once again lined up the set-piece, but her in-swinging ball only finds the fists of Van Wetter, as she attempted to punch the ball out of danger. However, the ball fell kindly to Talgo, who had a look from ten yards out to blast a ball past Van Wetter, but she skied her shot well over the crossbar.
Then the Ephs took advantage of their chances, as first Magruder then Kirshe found the back of the net.
With the two-goal lead, the Ephs' stalwart defending gave the Panthers no real look at getting a goal back, as they earned their sixth clean sheet in-a-row, their second against Middlebury this season, and their thirteenth of the season.
After the game, Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard once again praised the quality of play when the Panther and the Ephs take the field against each other: "Middlebury just have some unbelievable players, and they're unbelievably coached. It's really difficult to break them down, and we had to work really hard all over the field, while being patient and tough on the field. There's no doubt the first goal gave us a lot of momentum, but it gave us the confidence to get behind them and get the second."
Middlebury's NESCAC tournament run, which saw them defeat Amherst on their own field, comes to an end in the NESCAC tournament, bringing their record to 10-7 on the season, as they await to see if they will receive an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament that starts next season.
The Ephs' NESCAC tournament run continues, however, as they lift their record to 16-1 on the season, grabbing their twelfth win in-a-row and maintaining their perfect home record this season. With the win, the Ephs earn a place in the NESCAC finals for the eight year running, and they look for their sixth title in that same span. The Ephs play the winner of the second semifinal of the day between Connecticut College and Bowdoin, and the game is scheduled for a 12 PM EST kickoff.