WILLIAMSTOWN, MA — The memory of last year's NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game in Middlebury, VT against Johns Hopkins was never going to leave the minds of the Ephs; it never was going to be okay that their season was abruptly ended with 22 seconds left on the clock; and that thought had to be in the heads of the Ephs during Saturday's Sweet 16 clash with Roger Williams. But this year was different: the Ephs had the seemingly impenetrable bastian of Cole Field, having yet to lose at home this year; their sophomore striker tandem had combined for 30 goals, with one setting a new Eph scoring record last weekend; and they knew what it meant to lose late, both from last year's NCAA Sweet 16 loss and the heart-breaking penalty-shootout loss to Connecticut College in the NESCAC Finals just two weeks ago.
But for a few moments on Saturday, it looked like the Ephs might once again be denied an opportunity to play for a berth in the Final 4, after Hawk junior Mariah Kaiser found an equalizer in the 66th minute. Kaiser, who always looked the person most likely to find an equalizer for the Hawks, drove through the Eph midfield, evading the tackles of several Ephs, before pulling up from just outside the box to drill a low shot out of the reach of Eph senior keeper Hannah Van Wetter, that notched in the bottom-left corner of the goal.
"We didn't come to play a close game or just defend, we came out to attack and score goals, which we have done all year. The best teams we've played, we've scored on them…I thought we were going to win it," commented Hawks head coach Tim Moody.
And win it, the Hawks almost did, as nine minutes later junior Haley Carignan just about added to her tally from the first half, when she pulled up from thirty yards out to pop a long-range effort toward Van Wetter's goal, that just about dipped back under the bar, but Van Wetter left her feet and managed to barely tip it over the bar and out of danger.
At the eighty-minute mark, Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard subbed the starting Eph frontline back into the game, and what a difference it would make, as Hawk freshman Sydney Martin's goal was put under immense pressure by sophomores Kristi Kirshe and Audrey Thomas.
Just over seven minutes from time, the Ephs won a free kick in the midfield that was taken quickly to Eph senior Alison Magruder down the left flank, driving toward the end line. She then sent a cross into the box where a host of Eph attackers looked to win the ball. The cross sailed toward the back post, perfectly onto the foot of junior Crystal Lewin, but she mistimed her volley, spraying it wide of the target.
Seven minutes later, with only 46 seconds left on the clock, all would be forgiven, as Audrey Thomas sent every Eph supporter at Cole Field into delirium, the likes of which they had yet to experience in the 2014 campaign. Kirshe slipped a ball through the defense, trying to find the run of Thomas, but it looked like the Hawk right back and keeper would beat her to the ball. And they did. But Thomas showed just why you never give up on a chance, as the attempted clearance by the Hawks found Thomas' outstretched leg, instead of the cold November air, as time seemed to stop for several moments, and everyone on Cole Field watched with bated breath as the ball trickled across the goal line and into the back of the net.
"I will take that, to win on a not-so-pretty goal in the Sweet 16. It didn't matter what it looked like, it felt great," was all Thomas could say afterwards to describe her game-winning goal.
Thomas' second goal of the game and 15th of her campaign will surely be one that she will never forget, but that couldn't devalue the quality from both sides throughout the game.
The first of the two Sweet 16 match-ups in Williamstown got off to a lightning-quick start as both sides had their fair share of opportunities in the opening minutes.
The Hawks probably thought that they had opened the scoring inside of seven minutes, as Kaiser made a brilliant run at the Eph defense on a counter to win a corner for the Hawks on the left side. Hawk sophomore Kristen Casey sent the corner toward the back post, where Kaiser was lurking, but her shot could only find the right post of Van Wetter's goal.
The Ephs foreshadowed their opener just four minutes later, as Kirshe played a gorgeous flicked header over the back line, looking for the knifing run of Thomas, but Martin managed to just barely beat Thomas to the ball.
Five minutes later, the Ephs got their goal, however, as Kirshe continued her incredible run of form to bag her 18th goal of the season and 6th of the NCAA Tournament. Lewin once again proved incredibly dangerous down the right flank, as she collected a clearance on the right side of the Eph attack. She then sent the ball back into the box, looking for the head of Kirshe, and Kirshe was there. She elevated over her defender and nodded the ball past Martin to open the scoring.
Thomas would not be outdone by her striking partner, however, as she grabbed her first of the game just four minutes later. Lewin once again proved integral to the move, as she sent another cross into the box from the right side of the attack, deflecting off a defender on the way through this time, forcing both Martin and Thomas to change directions, but Thomas got there first this time, and knocked the ball into the back of the net past Martin to double the Ephs' lead.
"We didn't start as well as we could have. If you give any team, especially a good one, a two-goal head start, then it's going to be tough," remarked Moody after the game.
But that's exactly what the Hawks were on Saturday: tough. They recovered well from the Ephs' two-goal blitz in four minutes, and managed to cut their deficit in half just before the half-hour mark, as Van Wetter attempted to punch clear a Hawk cross from the right side. Her punch, however, fell kindly to Kaiser, as she took her time to poke an inch-perfect pass to the top of the Eph penalty area for Carignan to lash home.
Just minutes later, the Hawks just about did enough to equalize, as Kaiser once again bombed down the field on a counterattack, but her final touch was slightly too heavy, as Van Wetter did a wonderful job closing down Kaiser and smothering the ball before she could get a shot off.
The back-and-forth play continued into the second half, as the Hawks made innumerable treks forward looking for their equalizer. The Ephs, however, would be the first to have a look at scoring, once again orchestrated by Lewin on the right. Lewin made another trademark run down the right to send a ball into the box, trying to pick out the head of Kirshe again, but this time Kirshe could not steer her header between the posts, sending it smashing off Martin's right post, instead, allowing Martin a huge sigh of relief.
The Hawks would capitalize on the Ephs' missed opportunity two minutes later, as Kaiser found the back of the net, evoking massive cheers from the Roger Williams fans, only to be silenced with 46 seconds left on the clock by Audrey Thomas' game-winner.
After the game, Pinard had nothing but praise for the spectacular contest between the two teams: "Roger Williams is an unbelievable team. They have attacking abilities that they proved could come back from any deficit…I was not surprised that they found an equalizer, but any time that we attack with pace, we are effective. That is what happened in the final ten minutes, and that's what created the chance that ultimately won us the game."
With the heart-breaking, final-minute loss, Roger Williams' season comes to a close with a final record of 19-3-5, but the Ephs live to fight another day, as the dramatic win lifts their record to 19-1-1 on the season and, more importantly, gives them their first opportunity since 2011 to play for a spot in the Final 4. The other team in their Elite 8 match-up will be TCNJ, after they silenced Misericordia by the margin of 3-1. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 PM EST on Sunday afternoon.