WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — "We'll be ready for anything," were the words that Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard chose last weekend after her team booked a place in the NESCAC Semifinal round, and her words only resonated more when Middlebury sunk Amherst with 22 seconds remaining mere hours after the Ephs' own victory. With the prospect of facing off against the only team that had managed to come out on top against Williams, the Ephs had to be ready for anything, and Pinard echoed just that in her thoughts after the full-time whistle: "[Our loss in the regular season to them] was certainly a big piece of our motivation today…we wanted to really be at our best today."
The two teams' regular-season contest was one of only two games where the Ephs were kept off the scoresheet this season, but the Eph attack far from stalled this time around within the formidable confines of Cole Field, as the Ephs were at their best right from the start. An early goal from Kristi Kirshe, followed by Mai Mitsuyama's first career strike, proved to be too much for the Panthers, even after an Adrianna Gildner wonder-strike halved the Panthers' deficit twelve minutes before halftime.
Before five minutes had even expired, Kirshe notched her 11th goal of the season, drawing herself level with the NESCAC- and team-leading scorer, fellow junior Audrey Thomas. Jacqueline Simeone sent in a corner from the right side to the back post, and Kirshe was on hand to boom a header past Panther keeper, Kate Reinmuth, and into the roof of the net.
Just over two minutes later, Mitsuyama doubled the Ephs' advantage with a perfectly placed penalty, after Kristina Alvarado was taken down from behind in the penalty area.
"Unbelievable start for us," praised Pinard after the game. "Whenever we can, we like to get going quickly, and that was a great confidence boost for us today."
Finding themselves on the ropes early, the Panthers needed to rebound quickly as they searched for a way back into the game, which they almost found in the 18th minute. A beautiful flowing exchange of passes between the Middlebury attackers eventually saw Hannah Robinson find Katherine Hobbs just outside the top of the penalty area, but the Californian couldn't keep her shot down, firing it well over the bar.
Kirshe almost managed to put the game to bed for the Ephs just before the half-hour mark, as she got off a nasty dipping effort toward Reinmuth's goal, but luckily for the junior keeper, Kirshe's effort went over the goal, skimming the top of the net on its way over.
Three minutes later, the Panthers were right back in the contest, after Gildner absolutely lasered a 20-yard effort into the top corner from a tight angle on the right side past Eph keeper, Tressa Palcheck.
"We knew we were going to have a 90-minute game with them," acknowledged Pinard post-match. "They are an unbelievable team front to back. It was just an incredible game overall."
Five minutes after the halftime restart, Alvarado almost restored the Ephs' two-goal lead, as Kirshe carved apart the Panther back-line with a through ball for Alvarado to run onto, but the freshman wasn't able to steer her shot on target to test Reinmuth.
Eight minutes later, Reinmuth was called into action to deny Alvarado another opportunity to bag a goal of her own. A tidy series of passes between Kirshe and Crystal Lewin eventually ended up at the feet of Alvarado, but Reinmuth came up with a crucial save to keep the Panthers' deficit at just the one goal.
As the final ten minutes of the game approached, the Panthers began to bear down on the Eph penalty area, creating several opportunities that almost became equalizers.
Gildner sent in a free kick into the heart of the penalty area from the right wing, where Amy Martin was waiting to head toward goal, but Palcheck was there to make the save.
Six minutes later, Palcheck again was the Ephs' savior, as she maintained her team's one goal margin with a spectacular diving save. Gildner swung a corner into the near post, where an Eph defender was able to block one shot; however, the deflection fell kindly to Robinson for her to fire towards goal, forcing Palcheck into a full-stretch save to deny the senior striker.
Buoyed by Palcheck's game-changing save, the Ephs managed to hold off all other late surges by the Panthers to book their place in Sunday's NESCAC Championship game.
After the game, Pinard praised both teams' semifinal performance on Saturday: "[Middlebury] does a great job of pulling you apart, so you have to spend a great deal of time, focusing on staying together and compact. I thought we did a good job of that overall, but they certainly had their moments and their chances. Tressa [Palcheck] came up huge at the end there. Hannah Robinson is a special, special player…I was really pleased to keep her off the board."
Middlebury now awaits to see if they will get an at-large bid into the NCAA, after a strong finish to their 2015 season, with only one loss in October, finishing with an overall 7-5-5 record.
With the win, the Ephs, now 15-1-1 progress to Sunday's NESCAC Championship game, where they will play Bowdoin. Kickoff is scheduled for 12 PM EST on Cole Field.
When asked about her team's energy level going into tomorrow, Pinard had no doubts that her team would be ready to go: "It's the NESCAC Final, so it doesn't take much to get up for that. It mostly is just rest and recovery, and making sure that we get off our feet and take care of ourselves. It won't take much to motivate us for tomorrow. We'll be ready to go."