GREENSBORO, N.C. -- It may have been the best call Williams senior Natasha Albaneze has made in her young life.
Early in the second half of Saturday's NCAA Div. III national championship game versus the University of Chicago, her teammate Natalie Turner-Wyatt had played a ball into the Maroons' box. Albaneze and Alison Lu both had a play on the ball, Albaneze boldly called her teammate off the ball, and then buried a shot behind the Chicago keeper. That goal held up thanks to a vaunted defensive effort over the final 34 minutes that included junior goalkeeper Olivia Barnhill making three different 1 v. 1 saves.
The result was the Ephs second national championship in three years, via a 1-0 decision over Chicago at the University of North Carolina Greensboro's Soccer Stadium. The win also set a record for single-season wins. Williams finished its season 22-1-1.
"I'm just so proud of the soccer they played today," Ephs' head coach Michelyne Pinard said. "But more importantly, the grit and the toughness that they showed -- and the togetherness. They just fought. That team (Chicago) was good. They were dangerous and I felt our women stayed together, stayed the course, it was just incredible. I think no matter what happened today I was going to leave proud, but I think I am in just in awe right now of what happened out there and what these women did together."
The game's first 20 minutes went to Williams as the Ephs came out and executed their style of play, possessing with precision passing, pressing high and pressured the Maroon ball handlers quickly to deny them much, if any, control of the ball. Chicago got settled after that though, and began finding a rhythm that resulted in a few scoring chances before the halftime break,
The final 45 minutes seemed more like a prize fight, with each team punching and counterpunching with regularity. With 34:30 remaining, Albaneze scored the game's only goal, but there was much drama remaining before the Ephs could claim another national championship.
"I think every year we have the goal of advancing to the Final Four in the first place and then, hopefully, advancing to the national championship," Albaneze said. "To be able to achieve that first goal three out of four years, I definitely did not expect that but I think it's a testament to the leadership we've had, the work ethic and the team spirit we've created. Winning is a special feeling."
The goal came out of a stop of an attempted clear by Eph back Danielle Sim, who collected the ball near midfield and flipped to Turner-Wyatt who immediately slotted a through ball in the air just past the outstretched leg of a Maroon defender. Lu was one step behind Albaneze and both alone with space, but it was the senior who called off her teammate and then popped a quick shot over Chicago keeper Miranda Malone.
It was the first goal the Maroons had allowed in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
"Natalie (Turner-Wyatt) played a great through ball and it was Alison and I running toward it and I called her off, which was a bold move considering she's definitely the best finisher on the team. After that I was like, "I better score if I called Alison off the ball," so I was happy I managed to put that one away."
Chicago immediately responded with increased intensity. Jenna McKinney fired a shot wide from the 18-yard line. Williams countered and Turner-Wyatt put a cross in to Kristina Alvarado, who was inside the six-yard box. Malone made a strong save to keep Alvarado's shot out.
Moments later, a Maroon midfielder sent a ball over the top and into the box. Maroon forward Madori Spiker had Sim to contend with while chasing it down, but muscled her way past the Ephs' defender and found the ball about 10 feet away from the goal on the right side. Barnhill came racing out of the net and blocked the shot with her legs, quickly gathering up the rebound.
"We went into those last 30 minutes with that mentality of just throwing our bodies at anything," Barnhill said. "Everyone worked harder than I've ever seen anyone work, that was just incredible. Without that work ethic, I don't think we could have stopped a team like Chicago, they are really incredible on the ball and off the ball. So I was really impressed with everyone."
With just over 19 minutes left in the contest, Maroon forward Katie Jasminiski had a golden opportunity to tie the game, running onto a pass in the box and sliding a shot along the ground that Barnhill got onto the ground to block. The rebound however, bounced away from the Eph keeper. Liz Webber attempted to clear, but the ball rolled from left to right, still in the box, as Maroon Mia Calamari raced to it. However, Ephs Sarah Kelly and Georgia Lord arrived at the ball simultaneously with Calamari, stuffing her attempt at a shot, and following a collision, Lord jumped up to clear the ball.
With just over 13 minutes to go, Jasminski lined up another attempt in the box, but it hit her teammate Spiker and was quickly cleared by Webber. The Ephs countered and an opportunity was created for Turner-Wyatt, but her shot was high.
Spiker hit the upper back post with just under 10 minutes left. With five minutes to go, Chicago attacked relentlessly down the flanks, and Maddy DeVoe's cross reached Jasminski in the six-yard box. However, she flicked the ball over the crossbar.
"They have some really talented players we knew we had to account for," Eph senior Evan Gancedo said. "Luckily throughout the season we focus on communication so even when things go wrong and that slip ball does go in behind, we are confident in Liv and know that if she's going to save it, we need to be the first to the second ball. So it's all the little things we practiced during the season. Ultimately it's going to be hard work and throwing your body and sacrificing. Everyone on our team did that and it worked out in our favor, so I'm happy with that."
With just over a minute to go, the Maroons earned a late corner kick. Webber headed Calamari's delivery away, but the ball reached Hanna Watkins near the edge of the penalty box. Watkins curled a shot just wide of the post. The Ephs were able to keep the Maroons of the scored for the final 60 seconds.
Chicago finished with a 14-12 edge in shots, nine coming in the second half. Each team had four corner kicks in the game. Barnhill finished with six saves, while Malone had one and Kate Donovan two for Chicago.
In the opening half, the Ephs had the better of the play early. In the ninth minute, Albaneze connected with Turner-Wyatt with a cross in the box, but Maroon goalkeeper Katie Donovan smothered the ball after Turner-Wyatt's first touch. In the 22nd minute, Albaneze sent in an early cross from the right wing, and Lu stretched to get a foot onto it, but the keeper, Donovan, made a close-range save. The ball deflected off the face of Donovan and was cleared by Maroon defenders.
The Maroons got settled and had an opportunity in the 24th minute. Defender Clare Suter played Spiker through in the box. Webber, however, raced across the box to make the tackle, and Kelly cleared the danger.
Williams countered in the 33rd minute when first-year Ilana Albert's cross from the left wing was deflected away by Chicago defenders. The ball bounced out to Alvarado, who rocketed a shot just over the crossbar.
With the game still scoreless, Barnhill's first big save of the game came five minutes into the second half. Again on a counter, Calamari found Striker in stride racing to the goal, but the Eph keeper came out and blocked her shot from about 5 yards out.
NOTES: Four Ephs were named to the 2017 All-Tournament Team. The Most Outstanding Offensive Player was Albaneze. The Most Outstanding Defensive Player was Barnhill. Danielle Sim and Alison Lu were also named to the All-Tournament team ... Williams did not allow a goal in the NCAA Tournament. In six games, they outscored their opponents 14-0 ... The Ephs current senior class — Sim, Albaneze, Gancedo, Jacqueline Simeone, Kate Sands and Hanna Kaeser have compiled a four-year mark of 82-5-6 at Williams, a .915 winning percentage. They are the first class at Williams to win 80-plus games in a four-year span, breaking the mark of 74 wins set by the 2016 seniors. They won two national titles, advanced to three final fours and earned their way to the NCAA quarterfinals all four years at the school.
"I'm super sad about seeing these guys play for the last time," Pinard said. "What they did for this program is incredible. The level of play they envisioned and created was a lot of fun to watch and I'm going to miss them."