CLINTON, N.Y. — The defending Division III women's soccer national champions got their title defense underway on Wednesday afternoon before classes at Williams College even officially got underway, traveling west into upstate New York to take on NESCAC foe Hamilton College.
Although the Continentals have never bested their conference rivals from northwestern Massachusetts, with the Ephs holding a 6-0-1 record against them since the two schools started playing each other regularly in 2011, their two meetings last season were both close encounters. Both times, however, the purple and gold edged the blue and buff by one-goal margins, 1-0 in the regular season and 2-1 in the NESCAC Quarterfinals.
With that in mind, Colette Giligan's women may well have been galvanized going into their opening-day matchup; however, the Ephs put their slow start behind them to eventually put 3 past the Continentals, en route to a 3-0 victory that was also Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard's 200th career win in charge of the Ephs.
"I keep forgetting that," chuckled Pinard after the game about her most recent milestone. "I feel like the luckiest coach in the world, coaching this team, and the history of all the women who have contributed to this moment, those 200 wins, makes me just feel incredibly lucky."
Just after the half-hour mark, first-year Alison Lu marked her Williams debut with the goal that would eventually ensure Pinard of her 200th win.
The versatile midfielder ran onto a ball from Natasha Albaneze that found its way past a previously impenetrable Continentals back-line. When the Hamilton goalkeeper, Emily Dumont, came rushing out to meet the Williams #16, the junior made quite a good first-time save, only to have the ball deflect back off Lu's knee toward goal, leaving both players and supporters to watch the ball bounce over the goal line.
The Ephs' control of play continued into the second half, and their efforts were rewarded with a second goal just pass the hour mark.
Albaneze knocked in a ball from the right flank, just outside the penalty area, that eventually found the feet of Natalie Turner-Wyatt, but rather than taking on the shot herself, the sophomore wisely laid the ball off to Kristi Kirshe, so that she could guide her effort past Dumont into the top-right corner of the goal.
The Ephs weren't done yet, however, as Lu would strike again just six minutes later.
The standout first-year stormed into the Continental penalty area, only to be dragged down by Katie McKillop. Not lacking in confidence, the new Eph from Palo Alto, stepped up to take it, herself, and cooly dispatched the shot from 12 yards past Dumont to polish off the 3-0 scoreline.
"[Alison Lu] is a great player, and I knew that," reflected Pinard of her match-winner. "What I learned today was that she is a great competitor, and those two things really came together and created a lot of opportunities for us today."
In spite of the scoreline, the Ephs did not have it all their own way on Wednesday afternoon, especially in the first 15 minutes when they were barely able to get the ball out of their own half.
Amanda Becker and Ali Clarke, in particular, wreaked havoc early on down the right side of the Eph defense, sending in several crosses that forced Eph keeper, Olivia Barnhill, into action.
"I think in general we have a tendency to think through games early in September," explained Pinard of her team's lackluster first 15 minutes. "It clearly didn't feel the way we wanted it to; it didn't feel right. So we made a couple adjustments…and once we started to get a rhythm we were fine. We were just thinking a little too much and needed to play a little bit more."
After they got through the first 15 minutes and several adjustments were made, the Ephs did establish a rhythm, and Nkem Iregbulem fashioned the purple and gold's first real chance of the afternoon.
The first-year turned the Continental left-back near the end-line, creating enough space in the process to pull the ball back towards the top of the penalty area where Albaneze was waiting, but a timely interception by McKillop took the ball out of the junior's path and away from danger.
Just before Lu's first goal, the Continentals had what might have been their best opportunity to open the scoring themselves.
Impressive work by Clarke down the left engineered the chance, as she whipped in a cross with her left foot that Becker looked destined to get on the end of, if not for Sarah Kelly throwing herself at the ball before the junior New Yorker could volley the ball toward Barnhill's net.
The next thing the Continentals knew, they were down a goal, and they just about found themselves down two moments after they conceded the first.
Lu chased down another perfectly weighted ball from Albaneze, this time on the left side of the penalty area, but Dumont did ever so well again to close down the Californian, and she made a crucial save to temporarily deny the Ephs a two-goal lead.
Lifted by Dumont's save, Hamilton worked hard to get an equalizer before halftime, and four minutes before the whistle, the home side found themselves in a rare two-on-two situation. However, Danielle Sim did well to marshal Taylor Fletcher away from the center of the pitch, forcing her into a tough pass trying to find Darby Philbrick, but Kelly boxed out the forward while Barnhill scooped up the errant pass.
Just after the second-half restart, Kirshe foreshadowed her eventual goal when she darted into the penalty area to meet a cross from Turner-Wyatt, but the senior's connection with the outside of her right foot sent the ball the wrong side of Dumont's crossbar.
Before Kirshe would make amends in the 61st minute, the Continentals watched another chance go begging, as Katie Kreider belted a ball across the Eph penalty area searching for Clarke at the back post, but in spite of the senior's best efforts, she couldn't quite catch up with the pace of the cross.
Then the Ephs struck for their second through Kirshe and then again through Lu six minutes later, before the Continentals could gather themselves.
Finding the game quickly out of their reach, Kreider tried to pull her team back into it in the 69th minute with a long-distance free-kick, but Barnhill mobilized well to her left to prevent the blistering effort from rippling the back of her net.
Barnhill wasn't done yet, as she was forced into another pair of saves on Hamilton's very next attack.
First, Kristin Hughes struck a dipping effort from 30 yards that forced the New Yorker into using her full height to pull it down.
Then from a corner just moments later, Hughes' in-swinging ball found the head of Kate Whiston, but Barnhill wasn't nearly as troubled that time around.
The Continentals had one final chance to snag a consolation goal, when Fionn Fortune hit a shot flush in the 85th minute, stinging the palms of the Eph keeper that made the #0 palm it over her own bar for a corner.
Then from the proceeding corner, McKillop might have atoned for giving away the penalty earlier, but instead dragged her shot wide of the mark, assuring the Ephs of their first clean sheet of the season thanks to a strong defensive performance and six saves by Barnhill.
In her post-match press conference, Pinard focused on the huge role that the first-years played in stepping up to fill positions vacated by some early season injuries.
"The first-years being ready to go right when they stepped on campus has been a huge lift for us," praised Pinard. "We're so appreciative of what they've brought, but watching them follow the leadership from all the returners, it's been fun already."
"[Because of the heat], we knew we were going to need our depth, and we certainly leaned on it," continued the record-setting Eph coach. "They're a great team. I always say they're one of the most underrated in the NESCAC, and I think they're going to do great things this year. So the fact that we could do what we did out there today against such a great team, I couldn't be happier for the start."
Pinard and her players may be satisfied with this first step in a long season, but two more steps are just around the corner in the form of Trinity and Skidmore who will visit Cole Field this weekend on Saturday and Sunday respectively. Three games in five days will be a huge test for this team, but Pinard expects her roster of players to be ready for such a challenge, a challenge that will begin at 12 PM EDT on Saturday against the Bantams.