WILLIAMSTOWN, MA – It has been Connecticut College's best season in the history of their women's soccer program. It was their first appearance in the NESCAC Championship game, along with both their first trip to extra time and penalties this season. Somehow they found a way. In spite of conceding a goal after leading the Ephs 1-0 for over 55 minutes, they found a way. It has just been one of those seasons for the Camels.
Camel sophomore keeper Bryanna Montalvo managed 12 saves against the Eph onslaught, carrying the Camels through regular time, then the two extra time periods, only to see junior defender, doubling as back-up keeper, Amanda Onofrio, go between the sticks during the shootout, but it was a decision well made by Camel head coach Norm Riker and a job well done by Onofrio, as she parried away three Eph penalties to lift the Camels to their first ever NESCAC Championship in school history across all sports.
The Ephs and the Camels found themselves all square after each had sent five takers up to the penalty spot, but the sixth round made the difference, as senior Rebecca Raymond slotted past Eph senior keeper Hannah Van Wetter, before watching Onofrio guess the right way to parry Eph sophomore Katie Wardlaw's attempt to force the penalty shootout into its seventh round away from the goalmouth.
The tension was palpable not only during the shootout, but also throughout the game, as both side gave everything they had to come out on top.
The Ephs had the lion-share of possession and chances throughout the game, and their first good chance in the ninth minute on a counterattack, as sophomore Kristi Kirshe led the charge, running the full length of the field with the ball, barreling through multiple defenders, but Montalvo kept the game scoreless as she redirected Kirshe's shot out of danger at full stretch.
Twenty minutes later, the Ephs surely thought they had opened the scoring, as Kirshe once again ran at the Camel defense, this time weaving around multiple defenders and showing incredible strength on the ball after receiving an inch-perfect past from freshman Evan Gancedo. Her right-footed effort looked destined for the top corner but caromed off Montalvo's left post instead, allowing a Camel defender to smash the ball out of danger.
Four minutes later, the Camels made the Ephs rue their misfortune, as a Camel attacker won a free kick about 35 yards from goal. Raymond took the free kick, striking a ball on goal that looked to dip just under Van Wetter's crossbar, but Van Wetter elevated, tipping the onto the crossbar, but it ricocheted back into play, falling perfectly for freshman Alexa Tribelli to bury into the back of the net, past a helpless Van Wetter.
The Ephs looked shell-shocked for the remainder of the first half, as they tried to recover from their first concession in nearly 600 minutes of play, but they came out much stronger in the second half, putting enormous pressure on Montalvo's goal.
In spite of the pressure, the Camels had the first chance of the second half to score, as they once again won a free kick, this time from only 23 yards out on the left side. Raymond once again lined it up, sending the ball toward the back post, but Van Wetter did well to come off her line and take the ball out of midair.
Right before the hour-mark, the Ephs had their first chance at an equalizer. Eph senior Alison Magruder received a ball on the left side of the Eph attack and sent an early cross toward the back post, where Kirshe had broken away of her defender, but she could not direct her free header on target to test Montalvo.
Less than a minute later it was Eph sophomore Audrey Thomas' chance to equalize, as a deflected clearance fell right to her feet, but her shot once again was straight at Montalvo, who caught it with ease.
The equalizer looked more and more likely as time went on, but seemed less and less likely as the Camels each time found some way to see the ball out of danger.
Another golden chance for the Ephs to get on the board came in the 81st minute, as a lovely pass from Thomas was redirected by Eph senior Lilly Wellenbach into the path of the knifing Kirshe, but she flashed her shot across the face of goal and just wide of the left post.
The equalizer finally came six minutes later, and it couldn't have been anyone else except Kirshe. Fellow sophomore Maddie Swarr played a ball up to the penalty area to Kirshe, who controlled the pass wonderfully with her head, created space from her defender by showing incredible strength, then willed her right-footed effort into the left panel of the goal, finally putting a shot past Montalvo.
Just two minutes later, the Ephs thought they might just snatch a winner in regular time, as Kirshe almost bagged her second of the game. She once again received a pass from Swarr in the midfield, but when she turned and fired, Montalvo was there to welcome Kirshe's shot into her arms.
The Ephs carried the momentum into the first extra time period, winning a free kick under a minute in on the left side of the field for Wellenbach to send into the penalty area, but Eph junior Crystal Lewin couldn't quite get high enough to connect her head with the ball and force Montalvo into action again.
Two minutes later, it was the Camels' turn to line up a set-piece in a dangerous area. Sophomore Camel Cathy Higgins sent the ball from the right side of the field into the box, where it deflected off several players, ultimately falling very kindly to Tribelli, but she skied her half-volley well over Van Wetter's crossbar.
Three minutes later, the Ephs had their best chance at a game-winner, as Lewin received a pass from Kirshe, raced down the right touchline, and sent a ball in towards the near post looking for Kirshe, who beat Montalvo to the ball but just couldn't keep her shot down, as she launched a right-footed effort over the bar, allowing Camel supporters to breathe again.
As fatigue set in during the second half of extra time, both teams seemed a little more restrained going forward, but the one good chance came to the feet of Kirshe in the 103rd minute, as a smart exchange of passes ended with an open look for Kirshe just outside the Camel penalty area. However, her right-footed attempt had a little too much curl on it to nestle into the left panel.
Then it was onto penalties, and the Camels took the spoils. The game may go down as a draw, but there will be no result more celebrated in New London than this tie. The result brings the Camels' record to 15-2-1 on the season and the Ephs' to 16-1-1.
After the game, Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard commented on how much the Ephs still have to look forward to in the postseason: "It's the first time this team has played down a goal in a long time, and I'm really proud and really encouraged by how tough we were to come back and ultimately get our goal. At the end of the day, with the number and the quality of the chances that we created, it's tough to swallow a result like that. There's no doubt in my mind that this will only make us hungrier. They will be sad today, but then they will be ready to go tomorrow. I think everyone will see how tough this team really is next week."
The Camels gain the automatic bid into the NCAA tournament, as they overturned both of their regular seasons losses this weekend, first defeating Bowdoin 1-0 on Saturday then downing the Ephs on penalties on Sunday.
The Ephs remain undefeated at home, but nevertheless await the NCAA's judgment for an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament. That decision will be made Monday afternoon at 1 PM EST.