WILLIAMSTOWN, MA — Head coach Michelyne Pinard will tell you in many ways this has been the most challenging of her 17 seasons at the helm of the Williams College women's soccer program.
The women who comprise the team will talk about will, resilience and hard work. Skill too. Tonight at 7:45 p.m., the No. 5 Ephs (17-1-4) look to use all of those characteristics and more as they battle No. 11 Christopher Newport (21-1) in a national semifinal game at UNC-Greensboro Stadium.
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"I think every team I've played with over my four years have been different, and luckily this has been the most resilient and hard working," senior tri-captain Olivia Barnhill said. "We obviously have a ton of skill, but it's been our drive and resiliency that has gotten us this far."
Barnhill is part of a senior class, along with Lauren Brown, Sarah Hollinger, Kristina Alvarado, Dawn Penso, Natalie Turner-Wyatt and Madison Feeney -- who are 78-4-9 (.907 win percentage) over there four years and are making their third appearance in the NCAA Div. III Tournament's Final Four in four years. They have also won two national championships, including last year at UNCG Stadium when they defeated the University of Chicago, 1-0.
Still, the 2018 season has been a unique one for the Ephs, who have battled a avalanche of injury and disruption to their training routine, all kinds of weather, not to mention a few more games on turf then normal. Their trek through the NCAA Tournament has been a thrill ride of up and downs, twists and turns, and even a second-half blizzard.
"We really had to will ourselves to win a lot of games," Brown said. "That requires a little bit more grit than we've really needed in the past. Every player on this team wants it so badly and it shows in all of the games that we've had so far in the tournament."
The Captains from Christopher Newport come into tonight's semifinal on a 16-game win streak. This has been the finest season in the 22 years of the CNU women's soccer program, as the Captains have set records for wins in a season (22), points scored (223) and goals against average (0.54). Juniors Keiley McCarthy, Shaye Doherty, and sophomore Lulu Manley have started all 22 games in the back.
"It's a fun challenge," Hollinger said. "They're kind of a pretty big team. They play a direct style. We haven't really seen the kind of team that looks like them. I think we're excited to see what it's going to look like."
Like Middlebury, the Ephs had two players -- junior defender Sarah Kelly and sophomore forward Sydney Jones, named All-America Thursday night at the NCAA National Championship Banquet. But the Ephs defensive effort is anchored by Barnhill between the pipes. She has a 57-2-7 career record at Williams and this season has a 0.43 goals against average and an .885 save percentage. Of course the work of every player in front of her is critical, with Kelly, Maria Chapman, Nkem Iregbulem and Liz Webber playing prominent roles in the back.
Of course, Pinard has always coached team defense throughout the field, so midfielders Sarah Scire, Victoria Laino, Brown, Aspen Pierson, Liz Girvan, Ilana Albert, Mikayla Kappes, Erika Jung, Penso and Rain Condie will be counted on throughout the night. Anyone of those players could also put the ball in the back of the net of course. The Ephs have had 15 different goal scorers this season, with Sarah Scire having 14 points and Georgia Lord and Pierson and all having 10 points heading into tonight. Forward Kristina Alvarado scored the game-winning goal in the Ephs' first national championship, a 1-0 win over Washington University in St. Louis in 2015. And senior forward Sarah Hollinger has scored her first two career goals this season. First year Brianna Binder scored the game-winner in a 2-0 win over the University of New England in the first round of the tournament, and she has played forward, midfield and back in the same game during the Ephs' tourney run.