WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — An exhausted look followed by "I don't know how much longer I can do this" was the immediate reaction of Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard after a draining, two-hour extra-time contest against the Spartans of Castleton University on Cole Field Sunday afternoon. Two, well-deserved early goals from the Spartans put the Ephs up against it, but they somehow clawed their way back for a 3-2 extra-time victory via a 99th minute game winner from the foot of junior Kristi Kirshe.
A lackadaisical start for the Ephs was fittingly punished by the Spartans in the 16th minute, as a careless pass was intercepted by Eva Clark, who then had a go at the Eph backline. Although Gabz Amos-Grosser recovered well defensively, she was too late to prevent Clark from laying off cooly to fellow junior Nicole Wershoven to tap into an open net.
Four minutes later, the Spartans capitalized on another gift from the Eph defense, as Costello picked a ball right off the foot of an Eph defender, before driving into the Eph penalty area and ruthlessly rifling a shot that Eph keeper, Olivia Barnhill, couldn't quite tip over the bar and out of danger.
"Castleton did an unbelievable job. Their ability to stay organized and their ability to counter were spectacular, so kudos to them," were the praises on the lips of Pinard at the conclusion of the game, but she also noted her team's response: "We are a young team, so I wasn't sure how we were going to respond when we went down 2-0."
The second goal seemed to be enough to finally kick the Eph attacking machine into high gear, as the response was nearly immediate. Just over a minute after the second goal, the in-form Audrey Thomas was on hand to halve the Ephs' deficit. Kirshe controlled the ball just outside the eighteen-yard box, before feeding Thomas through on the lefthand side. Thomas ran onto the pass and slotted a beautiful left-footed finish just outside the grasp of Spartan keeper, Jessica Binkowski and into the bottom corner for her third goal in as many games to start the season.
With one goal back, the Ephs had no intention of stopping there, but no matter what they did, it seemed that there was little they could do to get past the resolute Spartan defense.
The Ephs' best chance to equalize in the first half came in the 44th minute through Evan Gancedo. The fleet-footed Hanna Kaeser tip-toed around her defender on the right endline, before pulling the ball back for the on-rushing Gancedo, but the Californian skied her effort well over Binkowski's crossbar.
The second half followed the same standard set out at the end of the first, as the Spartans decided to focus on protecting what they already had, looking for opportunities mainly on the counter. With that strategy in mind, a slew of chances fell to the Ephs.
The first good look of the second half came less than three minutes in, as a beautiful series of passes between Crystal Lewin, Kirshe, and Thomas resulted in Thomas flashing a shot across the face of goal and just wide of the left post.
Two minutes later, the Spartan defense was called upon to block away a series of pointblank shots from Kirshe and Thomas, after Mitsuyama sent a wonderful cross in from the right to find the head of Kirshe.
It was Lewin's turn ten minutes after that to cut inside onto her left foot and curl a shot toward the bottom corner, but Binkowski got down well to save.
Around the 66 minute mark, the Ephs had a pair of chances fall to Natalie Turner-Wyatt after which they surely felt that it just wasn't their day. First, it was a Mitsuyama corner sent in from the right hand side that connected with Turner-Wyatt's head from six yards out, but Binkowski somehow arrived at full-stretch to parry away. Then just seconds later, Kaeser bombed down the right hand side to send a teasing ball across the face of goal, that only just eluded the outstretched foot of the Brooklyn native at the back post.
With time winding down, the anticipation became more and more palpable on Cole Field, especially when the Spartans found themselves with a golden opportunity to reestablish their two-goal lead in the 82nd minute.
Clark caught Danielle Sim in possession after a pass out of the back from Barnhill, but the Spartan junior rushed her shot, sending it high and wide of the target.
The Spartans would rue their chance just five minutes later, as the Ephs finally found their sought-after equalizer right at the death. Kaeser made another one of her pacy runs down the right wing before floating a ball to the back post for Gabby Suarez to pounce on and head past the flailing arms of Binkowski, sending the Eph supporters into delirium on Cole Field.
With extra time on the cards, very little changed, as the Spartans surely were weary from putting all they had into seeing out the second half to only be cruelly denied by Suarez.
The chances came thick and fast in extra time, as Thomas' pace was too much for the Spartan backline to deal with at that stage of the game. Thomas picked the ball up in the heart of midfield four minutes into the extra time period and blazed past her defender, before rocketing a shot towards Binkowski's goal, yet it skimmed painfully off the crossbar.
Four minutes later in the 98th minute, Thomas created a beautiful chance for Lewin at the back post after working her way down the right flank, but Lewin got it all wrong, sending her header well over Binkowski's bar.
Kirshe would atone for Lewin's mistake less than a minute later and complete the comeback for the Ephs, as some neat interplay around the Spartan penalty area resulted in Jacqueline Simeone poking a pass into the path of Kirshe, who pounced at the opportunity to unleash the Ephs' 45th shot of the day, and this time Binkowski could not parry the ball far enough wide and was forced to agonizingly watch the ball nestle into the side-netting of the goal, as once again pandemonium set in on Cole Field.
After the game, Pinard was forward-looking in her comments: "It's going to be a heavy work week [looking toward Maine next weekend]. We have a lot to do. We know what we need to do, so we are going to put our heads down and start plugging away. Soccer is a humbling game, and we ate some humble pie today. There is no doubt that this is going to make us better."
After an exhausting win, the Ephs have the week off in preparation for the trek to Maine next weekend, where they have a double-header weekend, with Colby on Saturday at 11AM EDT and Bowdoin on Sunday at 1PM EDT. On the other hand, Castleton look to bounce back from such a cruel defeat, as they travel back to North Berkshire County to face off against MCLA at 4:30PM EDT on Wednesday.