WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. - The regular season came to a close on a cold and windy Tuesday afternoon, as the team that spoiled the Ephs' unbeaten season last year, Middlebury, came to town to try and repeat last year's 2-0 feat. The Ephs were not going to make the same mistake on the final day two seasons in-a-row, however, and an Audrey Thomas first-half goal, combined with a resolute defensive performance, clinched the regular-season NESCAC Title and home field advantage throughout the NESCAC Tournament for the Ephs.
Just before the half-hour mark, Thomas notched the game's lone goal, finishing off the most lethal of counterattacking moves.
Kristi Kirshe collected the ball off a Panther defender in the Middlebury defensive-third, and immediately picked her head up, looking for the run of her senior strike partner. Kirshe threaded a through ball between the two Panther central defenders, that perfectly matched the knifing run of Thomas. The Williams #8 ran onto the ball, touched it around Middlebury goalkeeper Kate Reinmuth, and then knocked the ball into the back of the net via the right post.
"My heart dropped. I didn't think it was going in!" joked Eph head coach Michelyne Pinard when asked about her thoughts on the goal. "I can't wait to see it on film, that way I can appreciate it that much more."
With the damage done, the Panthers attempted to mount a response before the halftime whistle, but to no avail.
With less than 10 minutes left in the half, the Panthers built up a spell of possession, eventually whipping in an inviting cross from the right toward Emma Shumway at the near post, but Danielle Sim was on-hand to hook the cross clear of the danger area, simultaneously relieving the pressure.
After the second-half restart, it took a decent amount of time for either side to create chances, but after the hour-mark, both teams had a chance to score the second goal of the game.
First, it was the Ephs in the 63rd minute, as Natasha Albaneze hovered on the right edge of the penalty area before squaring the ball to Evan Gancedo near the center of the 18-yard-box. The junior's ensuing shot slid through a maze of legs and looked destined for the left corner of second-half goalkeeper Ursula Alwang's goal, but Alissa Huntington cleared the ball off the line before the Ephs could celebrate doubling their lead.
Riding the high of Huntington's goal-saving clearance, the Panthers went up the other end six minutes later and nearly equalized.
Another dangerous cross in from the right flank caused problems for the Eph defense, as Sim struggled to head the ball clear of the danger zone. Katherine Hobbs almost made the Ephs pay, as she nearly capitalized on the failed attempt at a clearance, volleying the ball from close-range toward goal that required a crucial, instinctive save from Olivia Barnhill in net for the Ephs.
Ruing their missed opportunity, the final 10 minutes of the affair loomed ever larger, as the Panthers' attempts started to smell of desperation, as Katelyn Long repelled an early cross in the 80th minute, before Barnhill was again called into action in the 86th by Huntington.
The Panthers found no reward for their endeavors, however, and the Ephs recorded their 11th clean sheet of the season and their 14th win.
"We're getting there," spoke Pinard coyly when asked about her team's form heading into the postseason. "The great thing about this team is that we're constantly finding ways to get better, and I think today was no exception. We saw a lot of good things, but we also saw areas where we can keep evolving. It's fun to be going into the playoffs and still feeling like we have room to grow, so we're definitely going to keep plugging away."
Regardless of the result, both teams had already qualified for the NESCAC Tournament this weekend, as well as a home game in the Quarterfinal round to be held on Saturday at their respective sites.
With the loss, Middlebury concluded their regular season with a 12-3 (NESCAC 7-3) record, and as the third seed in the NESCAC Tournament. They will host the sixth seed, Bowdoin, this Saturday to determine who will receive a berth into the NESCAC Semifinal round the following weekend.
With the win, Williams ends their regular season undefeated, with a 14-0-1 (NESCAC 9-0-1) record, and as the top seed in the NESCAC Tournament. The Ephs will welcome the Continentals of Hamilton College to Cole Field on Saturday, whom they defeated 3-0 on the opening day of the season back in September, with Alison Lu and Kristi Kirshe collecting the goals on that afternoon.
"[Hamilton] is always particularly challenging to get a read on," commented Pinard cautiously when asked about her team's approach to the NESCAC Quarterfinal matchup. "They're always more dangerous than their results sometimes indicate, and we have so much respect for them and their ability, their forwards' ability to get in behind. And they're always organized…and since it's win or go home for them, we know we'll have to be ready for a battle."