GENEVA, N.Y. — The Ephs are no strangers to overtime heartbreak in postseason tournaments. Two years ago, they lost out to Johns Hopkins in the Sweet 16 with 22 seconds left on the clock; last year they despaired twice in penalty shootouts both in the NESCAC Championship game and in the NCAA Championship game. And after scoring early and conceding late, overtime was the precise direction that Williams' Elite 8 contest against William Smith was headed.
The Ephs opened the scoring on their first clear-cut opportunity of the game in the 8th minute. Natalie Turner-Wyatt roared through the Herron midfield before playing an inch-perfect through ball to match the run of Kristi Kirshe, who then played the simplest of passes to her strike partner Audrey Thomas for her to finish past Veronica Romines into the back of the net via the left post.
"I definitely didn't think I was going to score today. Having been off the field for a while, my confidence was a little low," admitted Thomas in her postgame interview. "It was crazy to get into the mindset of starting a game again, but with one game left to go with a chance to make it to the Final Four, nothing really hurts. I felt ready to go."
It took only four minutes for the Herrons to mount a response. Kara Shue left her defender on the ground on the left side, before placing a teasing cross onto the far post, where Shay Callahan was only inches away from booming a header into the back of the net.
Eight minutes later, Evie Manning had a glorious opportunity to level the score after Danielle Sim failed to deal with a tricky Kate Spiegel cross from the left, knocking it high into the air instead of clear of the danger zone, allowing Manning an opportunity to lift the ball over the on-rushing Tressa Palcheck. As the Eph faithful held their breath, however, Manning's chip thankfully only found the top of the goal.
Right up the other end, Maddie Swarr created something out of nothing when she belted a shot from 30 yards that had Romines scrambling and failing to save, but the crossbar cruelly denied the junior what would have been a spectacular finish.
With nine minutes left in the first half, the Herrons were awarded a free kick right on the edge of the Eph penalty area and just right of center, teeing up a beautiful chance for Emma Diehl to test Palcheck, but the junior defender was unable to keep her shot down, skimming the top of Palcheck's net on the way over.
Following the free kick, the Herrons had a barrage of chances that left the Ephs wondering afterwards how they had kept the green and white from scoring. Chances fell to Spiegel, Shue, and Longo, but they all went begging in and around the Eph penalty area thanks to Palcheck and the Ephs' tenacious defense.
As Williams limped into the halftime break with their 1-0 lead, it took little time for the Herrons to pick up where they left off after the restart.
Less than seven minutes into the second half, Diehl had another opportunity to deliver a dangerous ball into the box for her teammates; however, Palcheck got a solid fist to the junior's lofted ball to clear the danger.
Moments later, the Herrons had another corner to put pressure on the Ephs' defense, but Kogelmann skied her effort from the top of the box well over Palcheck's bar.
Just past the hour mark, Thomas almost hit the Herrons on the break after she used her considerable pace to burst through the William Smith defense and go one-on-one with Romines, but Zoe Jackson Gibson did remarkably well to catch up with the pacy striker and force her into an early shot that barely troubled the first-year goalkeeper.
Eleven minutes elapsed before the next chance for the Ephs, when Kristina Alvarado outmuscled her defender before picking out the bombing run of Madison Feeney, who cut inside to run the end line. The freshman then pulled the ball back in an attempt to find Natasha Albaneze; however, this time, Diehl was there to cut out the low cross before Albaneze could smash a shot toward goal.
With twelve minutes left on the clock, Turner-Wyatt looked like she surely had scored the Ephs an insurance goal, only to be denied agonizingly by the post. Kirshe held up the play magnificently before picking out the darting run of the freshman down the left side, where the Brooklyn-native collected the ball and bent her shot around the body of Romines, but not quite inside of the post.
"We were all trying to will Natalie [Turner-Wyatt's] shot into the back of the net," laughed Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard after the game. "The good thing about this team is that they don't get too high or too low. We know that that would have been a great opportunity for us, but we didn't let that, or their goal, affect our mentality too much."
With time running out for the Herrons to find an equalizer, William Smith began to push more and more players forward in search of a goal, which almost came in the 83rd minute from a series of corners on the left.
First, Krista Longo's delivery found Shue 10 yards out from the near post, but Sim sacrificed her body to block the junior striker's ferocious effort out for another corner that Longo almost put directly into the back of the net, instead caroming off the outside of the left post and out for a goal kick.
The Herrons toiled for nearly 80 minutes, but their goal came just under five minutes from the full-time whistle, when they finally converted one of their thirteen corners. MacKenzie Smith swung in a cross to the back post for Gibson to head back across the face of goal where Shay Callahan was waiting to nod the ball into the back of the net past Palcheck, that temporarily sent the exuberant Herron crowd into elation.
The Herrons proceeded to start the first period of overtime seemingly with a new lease on life, as Longo almost ended the affair three minutes into the period, as she slipped through the Eph defense to run onto a long through ball, but Palcheck did well to limit the senior's options and to save William Smith's leading scorer's ensuing attempt.
Two minutes later, Thomas had a great opportunity to double her tally and win the game, after Hanna Kaeser exercised her impressive skill on the ball to weave through several Herron defenders. The New Yorker assaulted the end line, before putting the ball onto the feet of the Ephs' goal-scorer right on the edge of the six-yard box, but the Washingtonian was unable to get the ball out from under her feet in time before Diehl swiped it away from danger.
With the next ten minutes of overtime elapsing relatively calmly, the game once again erupted into action with less than four minutes remaining in the second 10-minute period. Longo drew a foul in a dangerous spot only 20 yards from goal, and Diehl's resulting shot, unlike her attempt from the first half, was destined for the top-corner if it were not for a brilliant fingertip save by Palcheck.
In an attempt to keep the Ephs out of a dreaded penalty shootout, Kirshe almost was able to silence the home crowd in the 109th minute, as she played a one-two with Thomas on a counterattack, before ripping a shot with the outside of her foot toward Romines, but her right-footed effort found the wrong side of the left post.
A penalty shootout looked assured, but the Herrons had one final chance in the dying moments, that would've been cruel if Palcheck had not been on hand to save Longo's blistered effort toward the right corner.
With the memories of last year on all of the returning players' minds, it was first-year substitute, Olivia Barnhill, who made herself a hero in the penalty shootout. She denied all three Herrons who stepped up to the penalty spot, watching Spiegel's smash off the crossbar before saving Diehl and Katherine Campbell's attempts from 12 yards. Her performance, combined with conversions from Mai Mitsuyama, Kirshe, and Albaneze, booked the Ephs' return to Kansas City, putting their demons from last year to bed.
"My teammates have always had such confidence in me. They've always cheered me on, so I just wanted to do it for them," were the thoughts on the mind of Eph hero, Barnhill, after the game. "We've practiced [PKs] a lot, and I love them. My goal is to get one or two, but if you can get three, you're good."
"William Smith is the best team we've seen all year," praised Pinard, still in amazement after her team's dramatic penalty-shootout win. "To me that was the equivalent of a semifinal game. I think to play a team like that and to come out on top, that, in and of itself, is an incredible accomplishment."
The Ephs (19-1-2) bounce William Smith (also 19-1-2) from the NCAA Tournament for the first time in these two teams' histories and will play Centre College in almost two weeks time on Friday, December 4th at 2:30 PM CST in the NCAA Final Four at Swope Soccer Village in Kansas City, Missouri.
"Love this challenge; love this battle," preached Pinard, looking forward to the Final Four. "That is what this team tells themselves when things don't go our way in the middle of a game, and that has to be our mentality moving forward."