KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Michelyne Pinard was first hired at Williams, she dreamed of winning a national championship by the age of 30.
Those days may have passed, but the dream never died, and her Williams women's soccer team made it a reality Saturday, defeating Washington-St. Louis 1-0 in the NCAA Div. III national championship game at Swope Park Village.
The national title for women's soccer is the first at Williams and also the first for a member of the New England Small College Athletic Conference.
It was only 12 months ago that the Ephs departed Swope with mixed feelings after playing Lynchburg to a scoreless draw over 110 minutes only to be denied the championship in penalties. Saturday, that was just a distant memory as first-year Kristina Alvarado scored a late first-half goal off a nifty pass from senior Crystal Lewin, and the Ephs' played a dominant second half to take home the title.
Williams finished its season 21-1-2, its second straight 20-win season and the only two in program history. Washington-St. Louis concluded its season 20-3-1.
"Winning a National Championship is really hard," Ephs' head coach Michelyne Pinard said. "Women's soccer has only gotten better year-by-year. We've been working hard at this for a long time, and we finally got it. It's a good day."
The lone goal of the title tilt came in the 42nd minute, as a senior, Crystal Lewin, turned provider for a first-year when Alvarado finished off the most lethal of counterattacks. Lewin unleashed the full speed of the first-year, whose first touch was superb, as she raced past her defender and slotted cooly under the right arm of Crist.
"In the past, I have been very anxious getting onto the ball, but this one in particular, I was very confident," explained Alvarado after the game. "I had this feeling that 'I can do this,' and all the hard work in the build-up to that moment led me to put it in the net. It was just an incredible feeling."
The opening proceedings did not, however, leave the Ephs with the impression that they were going to keep a clean sheet, as Eph keeper, Tressa Palcheck, saw her crossbar rattled twice in the opening five minutes.
First, Hannah Rosenberg sent an early second-minute corner to the near post, right onto the head of the Bears' leading scorer, Olivia Lillegraven, who out-jumped her defender to flick a header toward the back post, where Katie Chandler was on hand to head toward goal. Palcheck had little chance to deny Chandler her goal, but Hanna Kaeser was on hand to wildly kick it off the line, launching it straight up and onto the crossbar, but the ball never crossed the line, before the danger ultimately evaporated.
Less than three minutes later, Chandler rocked the Ephs' woodwork again, as she was given space to blister a shot from 20 yards that dipped right onto Palcheck's crossbar, before it fell to an Eph defender to hoof clear.
Possibly the best chance for the Bears to open the scoring in the first half came in the 7th minute, as Rachel Mickelson caught Gabz Amos-Grosser recovering after a foray forward, to jet through the Eph backline and go clean through on goal with Palcheck. Amos-Grosser, however, did well to make up her lost ground and pressure Mickelson into knocking her attempt wide of the mark.
When asked to talk about the opening minutes of the game, Pinard had nothing but praise for the Bears' performance: "[Washington University-St. Louis]'s ability to pressure the ball and make teams uncomfortable is unreal. The fact that we survived the first 10 minutes or so made me very pleased. I have so much respect for them."
"For us on the field, it's very much a moment-by-moment thing, making sure that we stay calm and sticking our challenges," said Eph senior co-captain and defensive stalwart, Zoe Trutner, when asked about how the Eph back line moved past the first 10 minutes. "This back line does a great job forgetting things that just happened, good or bad, and focusing on whatever is coming next."
After the opening minutes, the Ephs finally settled into the game, as Natalie Turner-Wyatt played a weighted pass over the top of the Bear backline just before the ten-minute mark, searching for Kristi Kirshe, but the junior striker couldn't quite steer her ensuing shot away from the chest of Lizzy Crist in goal.
As the play cooled somewhat, Chandler found herself with a third look at opening the scoring in the 22nd minute, when she spotted Palcheck far enough off her line to have a crack at goal, but her well-struck effort drifted just wide of the left post.
The next chance fell to the Ephs right before the half-hour mark, as Crystal Lewin drilled a ball over the top, searching for the run of Kristina Alvarado, but Crist was quickly off her line to smother the ball before Alvarado could nip in for a shot.
This chance was a mere foreshadowing of the Ephs' goal, as twelve minutes later the Ephs found themselves with a 1-0 lead just before halftime.
With fifteen minutes to form a plan to find an equalizer, the second 45 minutes did not start the way the Bears had drawn it up.
Less than five minutes into the second half, Turner-Wyatt fed Kirshe through on the left side of the Bear penalty area for the Massachusetts-native to strike a fierce effort toward goal, but Crist dealt with the goal-bound shot well to keep the Bears within striking distance of the Ephs.
Kirshe had another chance in the 58th minute to double the Ephs' advantage, after her strike partner, Audrey Thomas, hit her perfectly in stride as she knifed through the Bear back line, but there was enough pressure from a defender to force the Williams #12 into an effort that was tame enough for Crist to deal with comfortably.
Ten minutes later, Lewin almost added her name to the scoresheet, after she received a pass from Katie Wardlaw that saw her then strike a sweet effort toward Crist's goal, but with the Bear goalkeeper beat, the senior forward was cruelly denied by the crossbar.
"I really felt it in the second half. We started playing so well. We stayed composed; we stayed calm; and we absorbed their attacks," senior co-captain Mai Mitsuyama We possessed; we countered; and we moved the ball around. It feels unbelievable."
Moments after Lewin's attempt, Chandler had the Bears' best look to make the Ephs rue their missed opportunities, as the junior ran the full length of the field before belting a long-range shot, desperately searching for the top corner, but Palcheck was able to watch it sail over her bar.
Three minutes later, Megan Nicklay stood over a free kick only 25 yards away from net, after Danielle Sim mistimed a clearance and caught Chandler late. The imposing junior defender, however, couldn't keep her ensuing take down, and the Bears could only watch as the free kick traveled well over the goal.
With only fifteen minutes to play, the Ephs expertly controlled possession and left the Bears nearly helpless to find a lifeline and send the game to extra time, but they engineered one final chance with just over a minute remaining.
Crist came all the way up from her position between the posts, to float a free kick from midfield into a dangerous area, but Palcheck was equal to the challenge, as she punched the ball away from danger.
The Bears finished with a 15-14 edge in shots. Crist made seven saves, Palcheck one.
"I am so proud of these girls. We put together a heck of a season," said WashU head coach Jim Conlon. "We tip our hats to Williams, who played very well today."
For the Ephs, it was a dream turned into reality.
"It hasn't quite hit me yet," joked Trutner postgame. "I'm sure the others feel the same way. It's unreal, surreal, all of those things. I'm so proud of this team, and I'm so impressed with the way we have battled throughout this season. We found our heart at the end of October, and we let that carry us through the postseason."
Alvarado was named the Most Outstanding Offensive Player of the Tournament and also earned a spot on the All-Tournament team along with Mitsuyama, Kirshe and Natasha Albaneze.
Winning the 2015 NCAA women's soccer title gives Williams 34 overall NCAA titles in 11 different sports. In the 2015 calendar year Williams women won the NCAA title in golf, tennis, cross country and now soccer.