WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Ephs began their attempt at a repeat journey to the National Championship game on Saturday morning, as they took on Westfield State in the opening round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament. After a season-ending injury nine games into last season, sophomore Natasha Albaneze took the field for the first time in the NCAA Tournament and turned in a match-winning performance, notching the game-winning goal and an assist, leading the Ephs to a 3-0 win over the Owls.
The Ephs' dominant attacking display started in the thirteenth minute when Hanna Kaeser sent in a cross from the right wing that found the feet of Natalie Turner-Wyatt at the far post, but her low screamer ricocheted off the inside of the right post and somehow managed to not cross the line, allowing an Owl defender to clear the danger.
Kristina Alvarado had an even better opportunity eight minutes later, after Kaeser once again orchestrated the chance. The New Yorker left her defender on the floor before she slid a ball toward Alvarado in front of goal, but Owl keeper, Anne Stack, made a crucial reaction save, one of her twelve of the first half, to temporarily deny the Ephs their lead.
"My job out on the field is to back up my team when they make mistakes," commented Stack in her post-game press conference. "It's why I'm out there on the field, to make those big saves, and I did that as much as I could today."
Just before the half-hour mark, Katie Wardlaw barely missed out on opening the scoring after Mai Mitsuyama picked her out at the top of the Owl penalty area, only to fire her shot just over Stack's crossbar.
The breakthrough finally came in the 37th minute, as Albaneze tallied her second goal since returning from injury last year. Abby Morss picked out the sophomore about twelve yards out from goal, and the Williams #26 volleyed it sweetly into the top corner past Stack.
"It was a great team effort today, and it did feel great to get back on the scoresheet," added Albaneze after the game, but she immediately looked to how she could translate Saturday's opening round performance into future performances: "I think I had some great opportunities cutting in from the flank today, but who knows what it will be tomorrow. We'll just be on the lookout for whatever space and options are available."
Four minutes later, the Ephs had doubled their lead, as Albaneze once again was integral, this time as the provider, carving apart the Owl defense to match Crystal Lewin's darting run. With just the keeper to beat, Lewin made no mistake slotting the ball past Stack to give the Ephs a 2-0 lead going into the halftime break.
Seven minutes after the second half restart, Kaeser looked to have put the game to bed, but the Ephs were denied for a second time by the inside of the post. Kaeser lashed a right-footed effort toward the bottom-left corner, but even though she beat second-half substitute Natalia Falcone, she didn't do enough to beat the post, as it caromed off the left post and into the grateful arms of the Owl keeper.
Previously frustrated by the Owl defense, Williams' leading scorer finally had a golden opportunity to notch her thirteenth goal of the 2015 season in the 57th minute, ghosting through the Owl defense, before rounding Falcone. However, Katy Knight made a heroic recovery effort to muscle the junior Massachusite off the ball before she could tap the ball into the back of the open net.
The junior almost made amends five minutes later, when Alvarado sent a pacy cross to the near post, but Kirshe's quick improvisation, chesting the ball toward goal, drifted just wide of the mark.
The Ephs finally got their third goal in the 76th minute from the strangest of circumstances. Madison Feeney whipped a corner into the box toward Lindsey Vandergrift, whose header looked to have been collected by Falcone before it crossed the line; however, the assistant referee thought otherwise, earning the senior her first goal of the season.
With less than fifteen minutes remaining, the Owls attempted to earn a consolation goal, but the Ephs' defending, as it had been all game, remained resolute, not even allowing Westfield a half-chance at keeper, Tressa Palcheck's, goal.
"It's always exciting to move on in the tournament," reflected Ephs senior co-captain and central defender, Zoe Trutner. "We're definitely up for the challenge of playing tougher and tougher teams as we progress deeper into the tournament, and we'll be ready for whatever comes our way tomorrow."
With the loss, the MASCAC Champions' season finally comes to an end with a respectable 10-7-3 record, after making their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in three years.
With the win, the Ephs (17-1-1) advance to the NCAA 2nd Round to be played tomorrow afternoon at 1 PM EST on Cole Field, which will see a rematch of last year's Elite 8 matchup with TCNJ. The Ephs took that encounter 1-0 to book their spot in the Final 4.
After the game, Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard praised her team's attacking intent, and hoped that they could replicate the same effort against TCNJ on Sunday: "Anytime you get 41 shots in this game, you have to be pleased, but of course you always wish that you could be a little sharper in front of goal…I think we're deep for a reason. It's a huge strength of ours…and it's always great to see different people getting forward and attacking with pace. We take this one game at a time though, and we'll see what happens tomorrow."