WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — After being handed their first loss of the season midweek, the Ephs sought inspiration with postseason play looming, and a return to the impenetrable compound that is Cole Field was just the dose of confidence the Ephs needed to rediscover their form.
Their quarterfinal opponents, Hamilton, came in with an impressive 6-1-1 record in the month of October, and their hunger to avenge their 1-0 loss to the Ephs on opening day of the regular season was apparent. The Continentals recovered from an early 1-0 deficit by equalizing just minutes after halftime. However, the late heroics of Crystal Lewin repelled the admirable attempts of visiting Continentals to break through as the first team in over three years to claim a victory on Cole Field.
With the game all square going into the final quarter of an hour, the Ephs voraciously applied pressure to the Continental goalmouth.
Madison Feeney was the first to ask questions of keeper, Rachel Cooley. Abby Morss made a probing run down the right wing before picking out Natasha Albaneze on the right side of the Continental penalty area, who quickly centered for Feeney just outside Cooley's six-yard box. Feeney looked certain to break the 1-1 deadlock, but Cooley had other ideas, as she saved the Burlington native's effort with her legs before smothering to prevent any further opportunities at goal.
This proved to only be a momentary respite though, as Morss and Albaneze once again combined to threaten Cooley just moments later. Albaneze intercepted a pass between two Continental defenders before attempting a tidy one-two with Morss, but Albaneze's touch let her down, allowing Cooley to race off her line and see away the danger.
Mere moments later, the Ephs exploited the right side of the Continental defense to create an opportunity for Kristina Alvarado. Kristi Kirshe found Natalie Turner-Wyatt on the left, who whipped in a pacy ball to the near post that Alvarado looped over Cooley with her head, but she couldn't quite get it to dip back under the crossbar.
The game-winner seemed like it would never come for the Ephs, when two minutes later, Cooley spilled a cross right to the feet of Turner-Wyatt, but her attempt at an open net could only find the wrong side of the crossbar.
The long-awaited goal finally came three minutes later. Kirshe drove at the now-weary Continental back-line and carved out a perfectly weighted pass to match the knifing run of Lewin, who took one touch to control before caressing a left-footed effort into the top corner past Cooley.
The Continentals had a golden opportunity to level the score with two minutes on the clock, but Katie Kreider's header from eight yards left plenty to be desired as she sent it well over the bar, allowing the Eph faithful to breathe again.
The Ephs should have put the game to bed just after Kreider's miss, as Evan Gancedo and Alvarado found themselves two-on-one with the Continental defense, but Cooley came up with another spectacular save to deny Gancedo's shot from point-blank range.
With mere seconds remaining, the Continentals were unable to create another chance to force extra time, and the Ephs secured an exhilarating quarterfinal win.
"Hamilton is unbelievable," said Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard in response to questions about what this win meant for her team. "This game is just a testament to our conference…[Hamilton] had a great October and an amazing game today."
Pinard's words rang true, as the Continentals put up a monumental effort to try to humble the Ephs on their home turf, but they found themselves up against it early after Kirshe opened the scoring in the 12th minute. The Massachusite reached double-digits in goals this season with perfect finish into the top-right corner after Kristina Alvarado had her shot blocked by a Continental defender.
Just three minutes after the opener, it looked like Hamilton had found their equalizer, as Kreider sent a corner into the box that produced several heart-stopping moments, as two Continentals had shots from close range blocked off the line by Eph defenders.
Kirshe almost doubled the Ephs' lead in the 27th minute, as Morss weaved her way toward goal via the right end line, before squaring for Kirshe to rifle just wide of the right post.
Just five minutes after the halftime restart, the Continentals finally produced the goal that drew them level at the time, as Becca Rees put a corner from the right into the center of the Eph penalty area, where a failed attempt at a clearance fell right to Victoria Freeman to volley sweetly past Eph keeper, Tressa Palcheck.
From that point, it seemed like the floodgates would surely open, as the Ephs came right up the other end and almost renewed their one-goal lead when Kirshe played Alvarado through on the left side of the box, but the first-year striker couldn't find the target, flashing her shot just wide.
Only four minutes went by before Kirshe surely thought she should have drawn her season tally level with fellow junior Audrey Thomas. Turner-Wyatt sent Alvarado off to the races on the left to roll a teasing ball across the face of goal that Kirshe couldn't manage to redirect on target.
Just when it looked like the Ephs were sure to retake the lead, the Continentals almost nabbed the advantage off another corner from Rees. This time the Continental junior found Hannah Withiam at the back post, but the veteran midfielder couldn't keep her header down when she seemed to have Palcheck beat.
The Ephs gave them little time to rue their missed opportunity, as they won a nicely placed free kick just before the hour mark. Gancedo floated the ball into the box for Kirshe to flick toward Lewin, but Cooley did ever so well to temporarily deny the Eph senior her goal.
Four minutes later, Freeman almost grabbed her second goal from a set piece, rattling Palcheck's crossbar after she connected cleanly with another Rees corner.
From there, the Ephs began to dominate the flow of play, eventually leading to Lewin's euphoric game-winner.
"I couldn't be more proud of this team for realizing that we need to create every moment that we have together on this field," commented Pinard on her team's performance. "We had a very good first half and an even better half, but so did [Hamilton]. I couldn't be happier for this team and certainly for these seniors to get this win so that we can play again here on Cole Field next weekend."
With the gut-wrenching loss, Hamilton (7-6-3) are bounced from the NESCAC Tournament, but will look to build next year on an admirable second half of the 2015 season.
With the win, the Ephs (14-1-1), top seed in the NESCAC Tournament, will host the other three remaining NESCAC teams vying for the 2015 NESCAC Championship next weekend. The Ephs will look to avenge their only loss of the season in a rematch with Middlebury this Saturday in the NESCAC Semifinal.
"Every game, especially NESCAC game, in October has been incredibly challenging," echoed Pinard about the toughness of her teams conference and the impending semifinal clash next weekend. "We're ready for anything."