Courtesy of @HeroSports:
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Williams College women's soccer team will make its second consecutive appearance in the NCAA Div. III national championship game thanks in part to two second-half goals from Natasha Albaneze and a key save from Tressa Palcheck.
The Ephs edged No. 9 Centre College 2-1 at Swope Park Village's championship Field Friday despite falling behind only 115 seconds into the contest.
No. 6 Williams (20-1-2) will face No. 4 Washington-St. Louis (20-2-1) Saturday at 1:30 p.m. back at Swope Park. The win gave the Ephs back-to-back 20-win seasons, the only two such seasons in program history.
"I couldn't be prouder of our performance today, mostly because it was clear that we didn't start the way we wanted to, but the fact that we were so resilient and tough for the full 90 minutes," praised Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard after the full-time whistle. "This team is amazingly steady, and that showed today."
After the early goal by Centre's Destinee Graves, Williams controlled play, outshooting the Colonels 7-2 in the first half, but still trailed at the break. The Ephs came out of the second half looking for the equalizer and after a few minutes early on, began to apply even more pressure on the Centre defense that had put together 15 shutouts this season.
"Our experience last year, knowing the caliber of team we were going to face and knowing that we deserve to be here, really gave us the inspiration and motivation after going down a goal," commented Pinard after the game, as to what the Ephs used to stay focused after the early concession.
Mai Mitsuyama lined up a free kick after Hanna Kaeser was fouled just outside the Colonel penalty area on the right. The senior co-captain rattled the crossbar with her effort on target. The rebound almost fell to Natalie Turner-Wyatt, but she couldn't quite straighten out her feet to get her shot off before it was booted away from danger.
Thomas had another chance for the Ephs mere moments after the free kick, as Evan Gancedo worked her way past the right side of the Colonel defense before centering perfectly to the junior's feet, but she was once again denied by an outstanding save from Alford.
Nine minutes later, Alvarado looked surely to have put the Ephs on the board, after Madison Feeney played an inch-perfect cross to the near post, but the freshman from California couldn't direct her header away from the grateful arms of Olivia Alford.
Albaneze made that near-miss a moot point just over a minute later. The sophomore striker collected a deflected attempt at a clearance outside the Colonel penalty area, taking one touch to create space and another to send a right-footed, curling effort into the back of the net via the right post.
Just five minutes after her opening goal, the Ephs completed the comeback, as Alvarado was brought down from behind in the penalty area by Tori Dillard. Albaneze stepped up and buried it from 12 yards to give the Ephs the 2-1 lead with a quarter of an hour to play.
"Even though [Centre] scored early, we were all confident that we could come back," reflected Albaneze in her postgame press conference. "I don't think anyone was nervous about our ability to come back. We did a really good job staying composed and not playing frantic or panicked and not being desperate, but confident in our ability to put one or two on the board. We knew we could get it done."
The Colonels were not done yet, however, as Graves orchestrated a glorious opportunity for the Colonels to draw the game level in the 84th minute. She used her impressive skill on the ball to leave her defender on the floor before sliding a perfectly weighted pass across the face of goal for the waiting Rachel Harris. The senior forward struck the ball first-time toward Palcheck, whose initial attempt at a save looked to leave the ball destined for the back of the net, but the junior keeper scrambled quickly back to claw the ball out of the goal mouth for her teammate, Katie Wardlaw, to clear.
Kirshe almost put the game to bed with less than a minute left before the final whistle, as she outmuscled her defender and fired a low shot toward the bottom corner with her right foot that was just out of the reach of Alford, but it trickled just wide of the mark.
With only seconds remaining, the Colonels sent everyone forward, but the resilient Eph backline learned their listen early in the game and made no mistake keeping the Colonels at bay all the way through the referee's full-time whistle.
Pinard attributed the Ephs' success on Saturday to her senior's emotional steadiness: "This team is one of the steadiest teams that I have ever coached, and it stems from the seniors. They never get too high or too low. It's certainly unfortunate to go down 1-0 so early, but I knew that we were not going to be rattled by that."
In the first half, if the Ephs were startled by the early deficit, they never showed it, playing their game of possession with a mix of precision passing and the toughness it takes to win 50-50 balls.
They almost found an immediate equalizer just under three minutes after Graves' tally, as Turner-Wyatt made a probing run through the midfield before finding Kristi Kirshe around the Colonel penalty area, who played a first-time pass to Audrey Thomas knifing into the box. However, Colonel goalkeeper Alford, was off her line early to smother before the junior striker could get a shot off.
"Williams is one heck of a team," Centre head coach Jay Hoffman said. "I am very, very impressed with the way they move the ball, their tempo, and their possession. And they have such a quick midfield…it is a really free-flowing system, and that really worried me coming into this game, trying to figure out how to prevent them from advancing."
The next chance for an Eph to equalize came in the 20th minute, when Kirshe once again orchestrated a chance for one of her teammates. The Massachusite carved apart the Colonel defense to find Kristina Alvarado darting into the box, but Alford came up with a crucial save to maintain the Colonels' advantage.
The final clear-cut chance of the first half came seven minutes from the break, as Abby Morss had a chance of her own to level the scoring, running onto a long ball over the top from Jacqueline Simeone. The senior striker's first touch expertly took the ball around Alford, but was slightly too heavy for her to catch up with before it traveled over the end line for a goal kick.
Williams finished the game with a 15-6 advantage in shots. Alford finished with seven saves, Palcheck four.