WILLIAMSTOWN, MA — Same story, different weekend. All season, it has been an all-around strong defensive performance, led by Eph senior tri-captain Lilly Wellenbach on the back line with an outstanding senior keeper and tri-captain Hannah Van Wetter between the sticks, combined with a goal, or two, or more from the sophomore striking tandem of Kristi Kirshe and Audrey Thomas.
Kirshe bagged five goals last weekend, smashing the previous Eph single-season scoring record. It was Thomas' turn this weekend, as she grabbed a pair of goals on Saturday in the Sweet 16 against Roger Williams, including the game winner with only 46 seconds left on the clock, and her third on Sunday against the Lions of TCNJ, a goal that proved to be enough to give the Ephs their first NCAA Tournament Final 4 berth in six years.
The lone goal came in the 52nd minute, and it was the pair up front for the Ephs that combined for the goal. Kirshe collected a pass from the midfield, before turning her defender and playing an incisive through ball between two Lion defenders to pick out the knifing run of Thomas. With her defenders beat, Thomas took a touch to control and then cooly slotted home under the left arm of the onrushing senior keeper Kendra Griffith.
"It brought tears to my eyes at first. It really did. Now, it's just pure joy. A year, if not more, in the making after the loss to Johns Hopkins last year. I couldn't ask for anything more," were the first words that came to Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard's mind after the Elite 8 win.
The game's 1-0 scoreline reflected how close the entire game was. After a quiet opening ten minutes, the game exploded into action, as the Lions earned a free kick just 24 yards away from goal. Sophomore striker Christine Levering lined up over the ball and launched a tremendous effort toward the top-left corner, but it curled just wide of the post, allowing Van Wetter a sigh of relief.
Then it was the Ephs' turn to engineer a chance to open the scoring just a minute later. In an almost carbon copy of what would later be Thomas' goal, Kirshe carved out a pass for Thomas, as she penetrated through the Lion back line, but Griffith ran out to meet her and just managed to beat Thomas to the ball, smothering it before she could get a foot to it.
Another minute later, it was Kirshe who had a pop at goal, as she barreled through the Lion defense, using her incredible strength on the ball, before taking a crack at the bottom-left corner that beat Griffith, but not quite the post.
The game quieted down for the next ten minutes, but then the Lions orchestrated their first shot on goal in the 26th minute. Lion senior Korrie Harkins started off the play as she unleashed Levering on a counterattack following an Eph corner. Levering raced down the left flank, before cutting inside, but Wellenbach was there to put enough pressure on her to force only a weak shot toward Van Wetter's net that was saved with ease.
In the 38th minute, the best chance of the half for either team came after Thomas was flagged for offsides. Griffith took the ensuing free kick, but as she made contact, she slipped, sending the ball straight to the feet of Eph freshman Hanna Kaeser. With Griffith 35 yards out of net and lying on the ground, Kaeser took a shot from nearly the half-way line, traveling in slow motion as it trickled agonizingly wide of the right post by a matter of inches.
In the final minute before halftime, Kaeser had another opportunity to bag her first postseason goal for the Ephs, as the Lions defense was unlocked by a series of Eph passes that ended with sophomore Gabby Suarez slipping a ball through the Lions' back line, matching the run of Kaeser. The ball bounced awkwardly, however, not allowing Kaeser to hit her shot with enough pace to beat Griffith.
"The end of our first half was as good as it has been in several weeks. It really helped our momentum going into halftime and the second half to know that the chances were there. It just felt like every single person on the team was battling and fighting for this result together. Both moments, where Hanna [Kaeser] almost scored, really motivated us, as weird as it might sound," noted Pinard in the postgame press conference.
Little changed between the end of the first half and the beginning of the second, as the Ephs and Lions both had their chances, but Audrey Thomas and the Ephs were the ones who were able to grab the much-sought-after goal just under seven minutes after halftime.
The Lions were forced to play more expansively as they searched for an equalizer, but the Ephs, as they have done all season, locked down defensively, conceding very few chances to the Lion front line.
In fact, it was the Ephs who had the first opportunities after the goal to score.
In the 66th minute, Eph freshman Evan Gancedo won a corner after a great show of skill down the right flank, which Eph junior Mai Mitsuyama sent toward the back post, right to the feet of sophomore Maddie Swarr, but Swarr mistimed her volley, scuffing it wide from close-range.
Three minutes later it was the Ephs again who almost doubled their lead. Kaeser did remarkably well racing down the left flank and cutting inside, before poking the ball toward fellow freshman Jacqueline Simeone in the center of the area, but Simeone's ensuing shot was closed down and blocked well by a Lion defender.
The Lions' best chance to equalize came in the 82nd minute, as they earned a free kick just a couple yards off the edge of the Eph penalty area. Levering once again lined up over the ball, but her shot was always rising, as she was unable to challenge Van Wetter.
The Lions wouldn't be gifted such a chance again, as Eph senior Alison Magruder moved up to the point of the Eph attack in the final five minutes, as she became the target of every Eph on the field, dribbling the ball into the corners and killing off the remains seconds of the Lions' season, finishing 18-3-1, and ensuring the Ephs' place in the Final 4 two weekends from now.
After the game, Wellenbach referenced the Ephs' NESCAC championship loss on penalties to Connecticut College as a contributor to their NCAA Tournament success: "I'm not sure if we would be here if we hadn't had that game. We realized that we're not always going to be able to play our perfect game. We like to think of our motto as 'passion not profession,' and I think we realized that not every game is going to go perfectly to plan, which really helped us. It's probably why we were able to fight so hard in all of our games in the [NCAA] Tournament so far."
With the win, the Ephs eclipse the 20-win milestone for the first time in program history (20-1-1), and they will look to improve their record in two weeks' time, as they will face off against Johns Hopkins in the second Final 4 matchup on Friday, December 5th in Kansas City, MO, also looking for revenge for last year's last-minute loss that abruptly ended their season in the Sweet 16. Kickoff is set for 8 PM EST.
Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard had one more thing to add at the end of her postgame interview: "When this team gets hungry, other teams better watch out. We aren't done yet. We want more. We are going to win a National Championship. That's our goal."