GENEVA, N.Y. — It's been 26 days since the last time the Ephs had to abandon the familiar confines of Cole Field, suffering their lone loss of the season thus far at the hands of Middlebury on that occasion. On Saturday, they ventured out nearly twice as far, making the trek across upstate New York to the campus of Hobart & William Smith, for the NCAA Tournament Sectionals held at Cozzens Field.
Their Sweet 16 opponents, Stevens Institute of Technology, came into Saturday with an in-form attacking trio of Kristen Goncalves, Zisi Komar, and Raba Nassif, who were responsible for eight of the Ducks' nine goals in the previous two games and 51 of the 84 goals that the Ducks had scored in the 2015 season. However, on Saturday, the Eph defense was up for the challenge, limiting the tenacious Stevens attack to a meager one goal, as Kristina Alvarado bagged a pair to see the Ephs into Sunday's Elite 8.
"I think we talked a lot about the whole team defending effectively and together, staying organized and disciplined to prevent any of their opportunities," reflected Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard in her post-match press conference. "A lot of teams might man-mark [Raba Nassif], but we just thought collectively, if we could defend well as a unit, then we could take care of her."
Alvarado opened the scoring in the 13th minute, after Natalie Turner-Wyatt made an enterprising run down the left wing, beating her defender for pace, to send an inch-perfect cross onto the head of Alvarado, who made no mistake nodding her header past Lindsey Mahnken in net to give the Ephs an early 1-0 lead.
After a disappointing first quarter of an hour, the Ducks responded well by creating a chance to equalize less than ten minutes after Alvarado's opener. Whitney Brown won a corner for the Ducks on the left side for Olivia Butera to whip into the near post, connecting squarely with the head of Komar, but the Ducks' leading scorer couldn't direct her bullet of a header on target.
Six minutes later, Evan Gancedo sprayed a pass out to Katie Wardlaw on the left, who drove at the Stevens backline before cutting inside onto her right foot and taking aim for the top corner, but her well-struck effort lacked the requisite curl to nestle into the inside of the right post.
Just before the half-hour mark, Madison Feeney had a chance of her own to add her name to the scoresheet, when Abby Morss gently poked a pass toward her on the right side of the box for her to arrow a shot toward the top corner, but once again an Eph shot found the wrong side of the post.
The final chance for the Ducks to level the score during the first 45 minutes came just over a minute from the halftime whistle, as Komar tapped a pass toward Gabby Mathelier for her to rifle an effort toward goal from 20 yards; however, Eph keeper, Tressa Palcheck, was never truly challenged by the junior striker's shot.
The Ducks came out from the second-half restart firing on all cylinders, as it took less than four minutes for the Stevens front three to find their feet. Nassif drove at the Eph back line before slipping Goncalves clean through on goal with Palcheck, but the junior keeper was off her line quickly enough to smother, before Goncalves could catch up with Nassif's pass.
Less than a minute later, just as it seemed that the Ducks were going to find their equalizer, Alvarado was on-hand to finish off a beautiful counterattack against the run of play. The Ephs' leading scorer, Kristi Kirshe, barreled past the left side of the Duck defense before sliding a low cross toward Alvarado in the center of the box, who had the easiest of tap-ins to double the Ephs' lead.
"Kristina [Alvarado] has been knocking on the door for a while," praised Pinard after the game. "She has been creating so many opportunities for us. I knew that it eventually was going to happen, and for it to happen in the Sweet 16 is not a bad day for a first-year."
With forty minutes to find two goals and force overtime, the Ducks immediately went on the offensive, and they almost halved their deficit in the 57th minute, when Goncalves ended an explosive counterattack with a ferocious dipping effort toward Palcheck, that forced the Illinois-native to tip the senior midfielder's shot over the bar and out of danger.
Butera was the next Duck to come close to scoring a goal, as she lashed at a shot in the 74th minute that looked destined for the left panel of Palcheck's net, but the junior keeper once again was equal to the attempt, denying the first-year her goal with a full-stretch diving save.
Palcheck's efforts only kept the Ducks' attackers at bay for so long, however, as Mathelier eventually halved the Ephs' lead with just over seven minutes left in the contest. Palcheck spilled the ball after coming off her line to smother a probing through ball, and Mathelier was quickest to the keeper's error, swiftly depositing the ball in the back of the Ephs' empty net.
Five minutes later, Kirshe almost restored the Ephs' two-goal advantage, after Mai Mitsuyama beat her defender to the end line before picking out Kirshe at the near post, who expertly spun her defender but ultimately mistimed her point-blank shot, scuffing it off target.
In spite of the missed opportunity, the Ephs were able to wind down the dying moments of the game with relative comfort, booking their second trip to the Elite 8 in as many years.
After the game, Eph head coach Pinard had nothing but admiration for her team's stellar performance on the day: "I was very pleased with our ability to stay calm and composed in possession from the start for almost the full 90 minutes. [Stevens] is an incredibly dangerous attacking team, and we took a lot of punch out of their attack. It's the Sweet 16, and a lot of nerves come with that. So to play the way we did for 90 minutes today was unbelievable."
"I thought we won the game in the middle-third," continued Pinard, "I thought our movement off the ball, our ability to switch the ball, our decisions on the ball were all just tremendous. It allowed us to keep the ball and to have to defend a little less. Our midfielders really forced the tempo today, and that really helped us out a lot overall."
Having been handed their first defeat since October, Stevens concludes their season with an impressive 18-4-1 record, while the Ephs, now 19-1-1, seek their 20th win of the campaign and a coveted return trip to the Final 4, as they take on William Smith tomorrow at 1 PM EST.
Pinard concluded her thoughts after the game talking about her team's internal motivations to keep playing and winning: "This team really wants it. They want another day, and they want to be able to put those uniforms back on another time. We showed up; we were ready; and I couldn't be more pleased with our performance from start to finish. And we'll do our best to do it again tomorrow."