WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The College of New Jersey surely had memories of their last trip to the Purple Valley in their minds on Sunday afternoon, where they advanced in the NCAA Tournament to play the Ephs in the Elite 8. Having been agonizingly denied a berth into the Final 4 on that occasion, they had their chance on Sunday to give the Ephs a taste of their own medicine. In spite of dominating the early goings, however, the Ephs proved to be too much, breaking through the Lion defense just after the half-hour mark before adding two more in the second half to send the Lions back to Ewing Township once again empty-handed.
"We couldn't have asked for a better last game on Cole [Field] this year," commented Eph co-captain and central defender Zoe Trutner after the game. "Being on our home field really pumps everyone up, and it was a great feeling out there today."
Early on, however, it seemed that TCNJ were up for the challenge that Cole Field has presented every visiting side over the last three years, as they created the game's first two chances in front of goal.
Just before the twenty-five minute mark Arielle Curtis found enough space to launch a swerving effort toward Tressa Palcheck's goal, but the junior keeper was equal to it, parrying the Lion's shot away from goal for Hanna Kaeser to eventually finish the clearance.
Lauren Malajian had a chance of her own to open the scoring less than three minutes later, after Elizabeth Thoresen beat Katelyn Long for pace down the left wing. Thoresen raced to the endline before sending a cross to the near post, where Malajian was all by herself, but she was unable to steer her bullet header inside the left post.
Two minutes later, the Lions rued their pair of missed opportunities, as the Ephs unleashed a potent counter-attack to break the deadlock. Evan Gancedo started and finished off the move, taking the ball right off the foot of a Lion midfielder before feeding Abby Morss through on the right side of the penalty area. With the chance to have a shot herself, the senior striker decided to unselfishly return the ball to Gancedo, who made no mistake burying her shot in the bottom corner past Jessica Reeder.
"I thought early on, it was kind of back and forth with us having more of the ball," lamented Lion head coach Joe Russo. "But as the game progressed, that changed. We gave the ball away in a bad spot on the first goal, and good teams, like Williams, take advantage of that, which they did."
With the Lions once again down 1-0 to the Ephs in an NCAA Tournament game, they toiled without reward for the rest of the first half, as they desperately sought an equalizer.
The only half-chance they managed before the halftime whistle was one from Marissa Scognamiglio, who pulled up from 25 yards to curl a shot toward Palcheck's far post, but it didn't have enough curl to challenge the Illinois native.
Eight minutes after the halftime break, Kaeser fortuitously had an attempted clearance fall to her for her to strike at goal, but Weeder was able to gather comfortably enough.
Weeder was not so lucky five minutes later, when the Ephs were awarded a penalty after Kristina Alvarado was brought down from behind in the box. Mai Mitsuyama stepped up and expertly placed the ball past Weeder to double the Ephs' lead, and dim the Lions' hopes of revenge.
The Ephs had two chances in quick succession to stretch their lead to three, just after the hour mark, but neither opportunity came to fruition.
First, the Ephs' leading scorer, Kristi Kirshe, attempted to pick out Alvarado, as she knifed through the Lion backline, but Weeder was off her line quickly to beat the first year to the ball.
Moments later, it was Kirshe herself who had the opportunity to add her name to the scoresheet, as she rifled an effort toward the top corner from 22 yards, that asked a lot of Weeder, forcing her into a full-stretch, diving save to deny the junior her goal.
Weeder's spectacular save only denied the Ephs a third goal momentarily, however, as Crystal Lewin bagged her second of the weekend in the 70th minute. Natasha Albaneze received the ball in the midfield, holding off a defender and breaking free to carve apart the Lion defense and match the run of Lewin, who collected the through ball and cooly slotted her shot under the left arm of Weeder to finish off the game in favor of the Ephs.
Five minutes after conceding the third goal, the Lions almost managed a goal of their own, as they won a free kick just outside the Eph penalty area on the right side. Jessica Goldman delivered the ball to the near post, looking for the head of a Lion attacker, but Long was there to head it away from danger.
The ensuing counter almost proved to be just as lethal as the one that led to the Ephs' first goal, as Madison Feeney put an inch-perfect pass right onto the feet of Lewin, but Morss came up just short of catching up with Lewin's ensuing cross to the near post, allowing Courtney Durstewitz to clear the danger.
The Ephs' final chance to add a fourth went begging in the 83rd minute, as once again Feeney orchestrated a chance, finding Alvarado just outside the Lion penalty area, who one-touched a pass to Kirshe for her to cleverly spin her defender and fire a shot that only just found the wrong side of Weeder's crossbar.
The Ephs' defense once again was airtight throughout the affair, with Palcheck and her backline recording their third consecutive clean sheet during this postseason.
Trutner was immediate in her praise of her fellow central defenders, crediting the team's all-around effort for the defensive masterclasses they have put in thus far this season: "I have to credit the other backs that I play with for doing a huge job with their steps, with winning balls, and just doing a really solid job."
After the game, Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard talked about how her team was peaking at just the right moment: "I think this was absolutely our most complete performance. Both sides of the ball, we were technically and tactically very good all around. This team is hungry. They want to keep going; they want to keep playing. We would love to be back on Cole [Field] next weekend, but if this was our last game here this season, it was a certainly a great way to end our run here."
With the loss, TCNJ is bounced from the NCAA Tournament by the Ephs for the second year in-a-row, ending their season with an admirable 13-4-4 record.
With the win, the Ephs (18-1-1) progress to the Sweet 16 for the third straight season, where they will play Stevens Institute of Technology next Saturday. The location of that game is yet to be determined, and will be anounced on Monday.
When asked about her thoughts on next weekend's Sweet 16 game, Pinard once again emphasized that her team is focused on their own performances: "Wherever we're going, we are going to call it Cole away from Cole, and just do our best…I don't think it matters where or who we are playing. This team is ready and wanting to keep going."
"Playing on Cole [Field] is a privilege, and we take advantage of every minute that we have here," shared Mitsuyama. "It's not a guarantee by any means that we will host next weekend, but it's great to end another season being undefeated on our home field."