MEDFORD, Mass. - Going into the final two-game stretch of the regular season, the Ephs made the trip from one side of Massachusetts to the other on Saturday morning, finally disembarking just outside Boston on the campus of Tufts University, who played hosts to the Ephs' penultimate game before postseason play begins next Saturday.
With a place in the NESCAC Tournament already solidified for both sides, the Jumbos looked to build confidence after a very up-and-down run of form against conference opponents this season, while the Ephs looked to move one step closer to locking down home-field advantage for all stages of the NESCAC Tournament.
After giving up seven goals in the last three games, including three goals each in two of those, the Jumbos might have been concerned that the Ephs' top goal-scoring form, tallying 25 in their last 5 outings, might bode ill for the Eastern-Massachusetts outfit. This fear rang true, as goals from Kristi Kirshe and Sarah Sciré outweighed Sarah Pykkonen's first-minute contribution, and the game ended 2-1.
In spite of the win, it was a horrible start for the Ephs as Pykkonen opened the scoring just 32 seconds into the game.
Kirshe had the ball taken right off her foot on the Ephs' left side by Mariah Harvey-Brown, and she immediately pushed forward down the Jumbos' right wing. She raced to the end line and whipped in a cross that Eph goalkeeper Olivia Barnhill could not deal with, leaving the goal gaping for Pykkonen to smash into the roof of the net.
Just three minutes later, however, Kirshe had the away side level, after a beautiful flowing move between her and Kristina Alvarado ended in celebrations.
Natalie Turner-Wyatt intercepted a pass in the midfield, and Kirshe picked up the loose ball and quickly threaded a through ball for Alvarado to sprint past the Jumbo defense and into the box. With the option to shoot or pass back to the Williams #12, the sophomore elected to do the latter, putting the ball on a platter for Kirshe to slot past Jumbo goalkeeper Emily Bowers to equalize.
In the second half, Kirshe and Alavardo combined again, this time to set up Sciré, however, as the first-year gave the Ephs the lead in the 58th minute.
Kirshe challenged a Jumbo defender for the ball about 25 yards from goal, winning it and sending it forward to Alvarado inside the penalty area. Alvarado again had the option to do everything herself, but selflessly slid a pass across the face of goal for a teammate instead, finding the feet of Sciré for her to fire over Bowers' head and into the top corner, marking the end of the scoring for the afternoon.
"This team never gets too high or too low," reflected Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard on her team having to fight back after an early concession. "Today they just collectively put their heads down and did the work that needed to be done."
Even before Sciré's go-ahead goal in the second half, however, the Ephs looked the more likely side to score again.
However, that did not stop Harvey-Brown from trying to renew her side's advantage over the Ephs shortly after Kirshe's equalizer.
The junior made another foray forward, this time into the penalty area, eventually scuffing a shot that deflects off an Eph defender. The ball lingered for several moments in front of Barnhill's net, but an Eph defender was first to it, clattering it forward to relieve the threat.
In the 13th minute, Turner-Wyatt had the next chance for either side to score. The sophomore collected a recycled ball by Alvarado, and attempted a 30-yard curler toward Bowers' left post, but the Jumbo keeper parries the shot away from net at full extension.
A defensive mix-up allowed Harvey-Brown another half-chance at goal just before the 22-minute mark, as she snuck behind her defender, before Katelyn Long came over on the cover to play the ball out for a Jumbos corner.
Robin Estus floated the ensuing corner toward the top of the box, where Emma Ranalli tried a strike toward goal, but an Eph defender blocked the shot with her foot.
In the 26th minute, the Jumbos asked another vital block of the Ephs' defense, as Estus was teed up on the edge of the area to rocket a shot toward goal that looked destined for the back of the net, if not for an Eph leg that was flailed out to meet it.
Six minutes after the restart, second-half Eph goalkeeper Tressa Palcheck was given an early test by Jess Capone, who fired a shot directly at the senior co-captain, but the Schaumburg-native made a mess of the save, fumbling the wet ball and almost allowing Capone to have a simple tap-in, if an Eph defender had not been in the immediate vicinity to mop up Palcheck's mistake.
Before the hour mark, however, Sciré had her side in the lead, and the Ephs would not look back from there.
As the game continued, the conditions worsened with rain and wind whipping and swirling on Kraft Field, making it ever harder for both sets of attackers to string together passes, as well as for both sides' defenders and goalkeepers to find their positioning on a slippery playing surface and ball.
Nevertheless, the Ephs found their footing, and were able to ensure that the Jumbos could not profit from another defensive mishap, seeing out the second half and racing towards the locker room and toward some place dry.
"The conditions were very tough today," opined Pinard when asked about how the wind and rain might have affected her team's play. "It was a challenge to play the way we like to play with a surface that was slick and muddy, but I was very pleased with our discipline and toughness."
With the loss, Tufts (6-5-3, NESCAC 4-4-1) now sits tied for 6th in the NESCAC table with Connecticut College, against whom they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. They have one game remaining in the regular season, however, to win the 6th position outright, as they travel to Maine to play against Bowdoin on Tuesday. Kickoff in that game is scheduled for 3 PM EDT.
With the win, Williams (13-0-1, NESCAC 8-0-1) extends their win-streak to 8 games and preserve their undefeated season. With one game left in the regular season, they hold the top spot in the NESCAC table, three points ahead of Amherst, meaning they only need a draw in their final regular-season game against Middlebury to guarantee themselves home-field advantage throughout the NESCAC Tournament. The Ephs will host the Panthers on Tuesday afternoon, as the Ephs look to prevent a repeat of last season's defeat in the final regular-season game at the hands of the Vermont team. Kickoff in that one is also scheduled for 3 PM EDT.
"The team is focused on taking care of Middlebury," said Pinard when asked about how her team planned on closing out the regular season with a win against one of their biggest rivals. "We're happy to have them at home and excited to close out this spectacular regular season thus far."