WILLIAMSTOWN, MA — Having been denied their sixth NESCAC championship in eight years, the Ephs came into the NCAA Tournament with a new hunger, battling against the well set-up defense of the Lasell College Lasers on Saturday in the opening round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, but the GMACC champions could not keep out the formidable Eph sophomore duo of Kristi Kirshe and Audrey Thomas forever, as they finally worked their way through the Laser back line to score two goals in two minutes in the opening moments of the second half, securing the Ephs' place in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
After a tense first 45 minutes, the Ephs clicked into another gear at the beginning of the second half, as Thomas set up Kirshe for both her 13th and 14th goals of the season.
Just past the 46-minute mark, Thomas received a clearance from the foot of Eph junior Mai Mitsuyama on the right side of the Eph attack. Thomas then flicked the ball over her defender's head and raced to the end-line, where she slid a ball perfectly across the face of goal, just out of the reach of Laser freshman keeper Sarah LaClair and directly onto the right foot of Kirshe, leaving her with little to do but tap the ball into the back of an open net.
Two minutes later, it was the combination of Thomas and Kirshe again that doubled the Ephs' lead. Kirshe received a pass at the top-left side of the Laser penalty area, then played a ball into the knifing Thomas, drawing the attention of LaClair, only to see Thomas tap the ball back into the path of Kirshe, who nestled her shot into the right panel of the goal with LaClair in no position to halt Kirshe's NESCAC-leading 14th goal of the season.
After the game, Kirshe commented on her two-goal performance: "Both of the goals were perfectly set up for me. All I had to do was put the ball in the back of the net, so a lot of the credit has to go to the team, especially Audrey [Thomas], who was making the plays and giving me perfect balls in front of the net."
The first half was a cagey affair, as neither side generated many looks at goal.
The first chance fell to the feet of Thomas in the 11th minute. Eph junior Crystal Lewin took advantage of a Laser defender who lost her footing on the left side of the defense. Lewin streaked to the end-line, where she centered a ball to Thomas on the right side of the Laser penalty area, but her first-time shot skimmed just over the crossbar.
The only other real chance of the first half came in the 29th minute, as Thomas once again played a role in the buildup. She sent a cross in from the right flank for fellow sophomore Maddie Swarr, but Swarr mishit her volley, allowing LaClair to calmly watch the shot go wide of her left post.
The second half was a different story, however, as after the Ephs put two past LaClair, the game opened up considerably as the Lasers looked for a goal of their own.
"We studied Williams a lot coming into today's game, and we knew they had a pair of really good finishers. We tried to pack it in and play a little bit more defensively than we normally do, and surprise them over the top. The idea was to change up the formation a little bit and throw them a curveball, but the two quick goals really changed our plan," were the words from Laser head coach Vito LaFrancesca after the game.
Just before the hour-mark, the Ephs had an opportunity to stretch their lead to three goals. Eph senior Alison Magruder sent a cross into the center of the box to Kirshe, who used her head to flick the ball toward the back post to Lewin, but LaClair rushed off her line, forcing Lewin to poke a shot that rolled just wide of the post.
Three minutes later, Magruder took a shot of her own from the left side of the penalty area that forced LaClair into a nice save that gave the Ephs a corner.
From the ensuing corner, the Lasers sprang a dangerous counter, as senior Bridget Lynch, the GMACC's leading scorer with 32 goals this season, jetted from one end to the other, playing an incisive pass through the Eph back line, destined for sophomore Megan Cullen, but Eph senior keeper Hannah Van Wetter did just enough to get to the ball before Cullen. However, Van Wetter's attempted clearance fell very kindly back to the feet of Lynch, but her long-distance chip drifted just right of the unguarded net.
Ten minutes later, Eph senior Alex McInturff had a pair of chances in as many minutes to give the Ephs a three-goal lead, but her header from a Jacqueline Simeone corner flew just over the bar, before she blasted a ball into the chest of LaClair moments later, after a nice Dani Sim cross to the back post.
"My focus today was to organize the defense, and I think we held our own out there. We played really well, and I thought we did really good job denying them chances, blocking their shots, not just me but our defender as well, and keeping our team in the game all the way to the last minute," said LaClair post-game, regarding her team's strong defensive performance to keep the Lasers in the game.
Rejuvenated by the Ephs' missed opportunities, the Lasers engineered another great chance to get on the scoreboard in the dying minutes. Just past the 85-minute mark, Lynch made a knifing run through the Eph back line to run onto a pass from Laser sophomore Maria Vasiliadis. Lynch took a touch and unleashed a ferocious effort on target, but Van Wetter managed to parry it away from the back of the net to ensure the Ephs' 14th clean sheet of the year.
After the game, "Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard commented on her team's strong all-around performance: "Everything is just better when we inject pace into our play. Going into the second half, we spread our play to the flanks a little bit more, and pulling them apart laterally, giving our forwards a little bit more space in behind, really made a difference. We knew we needed to defend from front to back and make sure our forward players prevented their really effective long balls from finding their attackers. They got behind us a few times, and that was unnerving. But our defenders stayed calm and composed, and Hannah [Van Wetter] came up with several huge saves in crucial moments in the second half."
Lasell bows out of the NCAA Tournament, ending their season with a respectable 17-5 record with yet another GNACC title to their name. The Ephs lift their record to 17-1-1, and their dream of a deep NCAA Tournament run remains alive. They will play Ithaca College in the second round on Sunday. Kickoff for that game is set for 1 PM EST.