WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. - The Ephs entered Sunday afternoon looking to extend their win-streak to 7 games, as they played host to the Polar Bears of Bowdoin College in a rematch of the 2015 NESCAC Championship game, when the Ephs edged the team from Maine by a 2-0 score line thanks to a pair of second-half goals from Natalie Turner-Wyatt and Kristi Kirshe.
The Polar Bears came into the Sunday afternoon bout having lost two of their last four games and were looking for some much-desired revenge and a way to jump-start the end of their season with a win against the #2-ranked side in the country. However, Audrey Thomas and Kristina Alvarado combined to deny the Polar Bears their revenge, and repeat the score line from the postseason last year.
Thomas grabbed the only goal of the opening half, after an expert attacking move orchestrated by Sarah Sciré.
A swift move forward through the midfield found the in-form first-year with the ball at her feet, and she attempted a cleverly designed pass over, rather than through, the Polar Bear defense. With Thomas given the license to run, she slipped between the two central defenders and was first to Sciré's ball, and with only Rachel Stout left between her and the goal, the Washingtonian deftly chipped the on-rushing goalkeeper to give the Ephs the lead.
In the second half, the Ephs extended their lead to two goals, thanks to a lethal counterattack led by Kristi Kirshe and finished off by Alvarado.
Kirshe outmuscled her defender on the left flank, and then had acres of space in which to run to the end line. Once there, she patiently picked her head up and found the run of Alvarado at the near post, who banged her ensuing shot first-time past Rachel Stout in goal.
The Polar Bears had a sprinkle of chances, mainly by way of set pieces, to try to pull a goal back and make things interesting, but in each scenario, the resolute Eph defense repelled Bowdoin's attempts and ensured the Ephs their 10th clean sheet of the season.
"Bowdoin is a great team, very organized," praised Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard of her opposition on the day. "They presented different challenges, and we had to solve a different type of system. So I was pleased with our ability to do that. I think we're playing well, but hitting that mid-season lull energy-wise…It happens every year at this time, so to be able to do what we're doing, while we're experiencing that, is pretty awesome."
Before Thomas opened the scoring in the 24th minute, Stout had already been called into action twice, once by Thomas and another time by Wardlaw.
First, in the 11th minute, the Williams #8 pressured Polar Bear defender Taylor Haist, as she attempted to hoof a ball up-field and away from danger. Thomas' efforts were rewarded, as she prevented the clearance and presented herself with a clear chance against Stout, but the junior goalkeeper was equal to the senior's challenge, saving well from a tight angle.
Seven minutes later, it was Wardlaw's turn to test Stout.
Natalie Turner-Wyatt crafted a beautiful through ball from the midfield to match the senior winger's run into the box. However, Stout was aware to the danger, and was off her line early in an attempt to deny the Ephs their first goal again. And although Wardlaw did arrive moments before the keeper, Stout did well to make herself big and save the Californian's toe-poked effort.
Stout's efforts were ultimately in vain however, as Thomas had the Ephs in front six minutes later.
The Polar Bears were slow to mount a response to the opening goal, and it wasn't until the 33rd minute when they had their first legitimate chance of the afternoon.
Nikki Wilson got a step on her defender on the left flank and proceeded to jet down the left sideline, before picking her head up and finding Morgen Gallagher around the edge of the 18-yard-box. With several defenders surrounding her and with little auxiliary support, the first-year had to go it alone, but her powerful strike only required a mildly comfortable save out of Olivia Barnhill in goal.
Three minutes after that initial chance, the Polar Bears were nearly gifted an equalizer, when Katelyn Long accidentally blasted a clearance off one of her own teammates. The ball then fell kindly to the feet of Talia Missan, but the first-year attacker, like her teammate before her, couldn't do enough with the chance to truly test Barnhill, skying her shot over the bar.
In the dying minutes before halftime, the Ephs nearly had their second of the day through Kirshe.
Madison Feeney lumped a ball forward from defense, trying to break down the high defensive line that the Polar Bears were employing. With plenty of space to run in behind, Kirshe chased down the long ball over the top and only had Stout left to beat, but she couldn't quite get enough behind her shot to beat the Bowdoin goalkeeper.
After the second-half restart, both sides took a handful of minutes to settle back into the game, but eventually it was the Ephs again who were the ones looking likeliest to score.
In the 55th minute, Gancedo used her great vision to find the run of Natasha Albaneze, who was angling toward the penalty area. With one touch, the junior controlled Gancedo's pass and with another rifled a shot toward goal, forcing Stout into an instinctive leg save.
Right before the hour mark, the Polar Bears had another chance to equalize after they won a free kick in a dangerous area. Haist effectively found the feet of Evan Fencik in the box with her take, but the senior's shot directed toward goal didn't make it through the mass of Eph bodies, before it was sent flying away from the penalty box.
Six minutes later, the Ephs foreshadowed their second goal when Kirshe rattled Stout's left post with a ferocious volley from inside the box.
Gabz Amos-Grosser whipped in a cross from near the left corner flag, picking out Wardlaw near the penalty spot. Instead of trying to take on the shot herself, however, the Williams #14 laid the ball smartly off to fellow senior, Kirshe, who knocked it first-time toward goal, only to see it come right back at her, caroming off the woodwork.
The Ephs' frustration was short-lived though, and Alvarado doubled the Ephs' advantage less than two minutes later.
Although there were some desperate attempts from the Polar Bears to nab a consolation goal before the full-time whistle, their attempts were fruitless, and the Ephs extended their home unbeaten run to 50 games total over the last four years and 25 wins in-a-row since two seasons ago.
After the game, Pinard pointed to her team's depth and self-belief as main contributors to their success thus far this season.
"Our depth helps, but I also think this team responds to different types of challenges," commented Pinard. "I think the confidence of every person on our roster is incredible, and I think there is a lot of belief in our ability to pull things out regardless of the scenario. Everyone's ready to step up when they're needed, and as a coach, I couldn't ask for anything more."
Bowdoin (8-4, NESCAC 4-3) will have to shrug off the loss quickly, as they next have a mid-week trip to Colby on Wednesday, with kickoff set for 3 PM EDT, as they look to lock up a place in the NESCAC Tournament in their last three games of the season, currently sitting in 6th place and tied with Connecticut College.
Meanwhile, Williams (12-0-1, NESCAC 7-0-1) has slightly longer to recover from another double-game weekend for their trip to the greater Boston area next Saturday, where they will take on Tufts on their campus in Medford. Kickoff in that game is scheduled for 12 PM EDT.
"Going to Tufts is always unique," spoke Pinard sagely of her upcoming fixture on the other side of the state. "First, Tufts is always good. And second, playing the same day that you travel is not easy, so we're going to focus on that right now, as we recover on Monday and Tuesday, before we ramp back up for Saturday."