WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — As the Ephs took the field on Sunday afternoon in the NESCAC Championship game, it was their 9th consecutive appearance in the conference title clash, with the last time they weren't one of the two teams in the contest dating all the way back to 2006, when Middlebury defeated Amherst in the final. Of the eight NESCAC Championships preceding Sunday's title tilt, the Ephs had won five, but had failed to win either of their last two appearances, falling to top-seeded Middlebury in 2013 and suffering an agonizing loss to Connecticut College on penalties last year. However, the Ephs were determined that 2015 would be different, and their reassurances were merited, as first-year Natalie Turner-Wyatt tallied her first career goal early in the second half, before Kristi Kirshe ensured the Ephs their trophy with a late second goal to send the Polar Bears back to Maine with the runner-up trophy.
The opening goal that would eventually prove to be the game-winner came just over eight minutes after halftime, and the eruption that ensued from the Eph faithful watching on the sidelines told the whole story. Evan Gancedo found Turner-Wyatt just outside the left side of the Polar Bear penalty area, where the Brooklyn native took one touch to settle the ball and another to send an absolute screamer into the top corner past the helpless Bridget McCarthy in net.
After the game, Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard had nothing but praise for Turner-Wyatt's goal: "Natalie [Turner-Wyatt] has been knocking on the door for a while, and I couldn't be happier for her and for us. Her first career goal couldn't have come at a better time."
The Ephs weren't about to sit on their laurels with the one-goal lead as they continued to press and looked the likelier of the two teams to score the next goal.
Five minutes after the opener, Kirshe lured several defenders toward her with an imperious run through the midfield, before slipping Kristina Alvarado clean through on goal, but McCarthy came up with a crucial save to keep the margin at just the one goal.
Alvarado had another opportunity ten minutes later, after Lewin chased down a long ball over the top from Madison Feeney to square nicely for Alvarado, but the freshman striker couldn't keep her first-time shot down, putting it just over McCarthy's crossbar.
Another ten minutes elapsed, while the Ephs continued to relentlessly apply pressure to McCarthy, before another golden opportunity to double the lead appeared. Katie Wardlaw was eight yards out with the ball at her feet, as she selflessly attempted to find fellow junior, Kirshe, but had her pass sent right back to her when a Polar Bear defender attempted to cut it out. This time she was not as selfless, as she attempted to place the ball above McCarthy into the roof of the net, but the senior keeper did well again to save.
Just over two minutes before the full-time whistle, the Polar Bears' determination to find an equalizer left them too open at the back, and the combination of Feeney and Kirshe hit them on the counter, as the first-year played the junior clean through on goal with McCarthy, who was helpless to keep out Kirshe's cool finish into the bottom corner.
"Are there ever words to describe this feeling?" reacted Pinard post-match when asked about what this win meant to her and her team. "We went into this game knowing that it was a competitive opportunity of a lifetime, playing for a NESCAC Championship on Cole Field. To win it is unbelievable. To play in a game of that caliber and to play the way we did and fight the way we did, I don't think any of us could be more proud of our team right now."
The Ephs' second-half dominance was not as pronounced in the first 45 minutes, as the Polar Bears were actually the ones who had the lion-share of chances early on.
The Polar Bears won a free kick just five minutes after kickoff that saw Taylor Haist float a beautifully weighted ball into the box that Julia Patterson redirected on target with her head, but Tressa Palcheck's reactions were timely enough to deny Bowdoin an early lead.
They had an even better chance to open the scoring six minutes later, when a cross somehow made its way through several attackers and defenders all the way to the feet of Brigit Bergin in the heart of the Eph penalty area. Bergen managed to put her shot under the flailing arms of Palcheck, but Danielle Sim was on the cover to clear the ball off the line and keep the game scoreless.
Two minutes later, the Ephs almost capitalized on Sim's goal-line clearance, when Hanna Kaeser played a teasing low cross toward the near post that Alvarado managed to get on the end of, but she blasted her shot just wide of the mark.
Mai Mitsuyama, fresh off her first career goal in Saturday's semifinal clash with Middlebury, almost notched her second career goal in the 20th minute, when she connected squarely with Kirshe's lay off to her, but her rifled effort also went just wide of McCarthy's right post.
The last chance of the half fell to Natasha Albaneze after Crystal Lewin put her defender on the floor before sending in a pacy cross to the center of the box that Albaneze just mistimed enough to not steer it on target.
With the game justifiably level at halftime, the second half completely changed the trajectory of the game, as Turner-Wyatt's early goal sent the Ephs on their way to their 7th NESCAC Championship in team history.
Pinard hailed her team's all-around performance to reclaim the NESCAC Championship after a two-year hiatus away from the purple valley: "I think this was our most complete performance of the season. It didn't start off the way we wanted: they had the ball out and we couldn't find a rhythm. But we eventually settled in though, and we didn't panic. We played well; we fought; and we got the result. Those three things don't always come together, so when they do, it's really great."
As the NESCAC runners-up, Bowdoin (12-5-1) must now wait to see if their season has concluded or if they will be awarded an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament that begins next weekend. The at-large bids are set to be awarded sometime tomorrow afternoon.
As the winners of the 2015 NESCAC Championship, the Ephs (16-1-1) clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament that starts next weekend. They also must wait, however, to see who they will play and if they will host, with the announcement coming sometime tomorrow afternoon.
Pinard closed with her thoughts moving forward into this year's NCAA Tournament: "This is a younger team, and it took us a little longer to find ourselves. The difference [going into the NCAA Tournament] this year is that we now know who we are and what we want to accomplish, and we are willing to do whatever it takes to get to the Final Four. Our goals are the same; our journey has been a little different. I'm just so proud of what this team has managed to accomplish this season, especially watching them win a NESCAC Championship out there today."