GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Junior Sarah Scire scored a goal in each half Friday night as the defending national champion Williams College women's soccer team blanked high-powered Christopher Newport in a NCAA Div. III Tournament national semifinal at UNC-Greensboro Stadium.
Williams (18-1-4) will play conference rival Middlebury (19-1-3) in the national championship game Saturday at 7 p.m. It will be the fourth time in five years the Ephs have played in the national championship game. The Ephs and Panthers split a pair of 1-0 decision this season, with the Ephs triumphing on Cole Field in the regular-season finale for both teams, and the Panthers taking the NESCAC Tournament championship game by a one-goal margin in a game played at Farley-Lamb Field.
The Ephs advanced past Christopher Newport because of a tremendous defensive effort -- senior goalkeeper Olivia Barnhill called it their best effort of the season -- stifling the Captains attack by doing a lot of ball-winning, blocking a lot of shots, and, as is her wont, getting some outstanding goalkeeping from Barnhill. CNU outshot the Ephs 19-11 in the contest, but each team had just four shots on frame.
"We knew coming into this game they (CNU) had incredible individual attacking ability," Ephs' head coach Michelyne Pinard said. "And they were exactly what we thought -- they were incredible. Our goal was to deny them the ball whenever possible and have incredibly tight cover whenever possible. I thought we did a great job of that from front to back. Our effort, not just our physical effort, but our communication and ability to consistently deny them opportunities was amazing given their ability."
The Captains (21-2) had not been shut out once their entire season prior to Friday night, but saw their 16-game win streak snapped. In the game's 10th minute, the shutout was very much in doubt as All-American Riley Cook, who had scored in 11 straight games coming into the semifinal, rocketed a shot behind Barnhill, but it was quickly whistled off-sides. CNU kept up the pressure, and just a five minutes later, a Cook shot was rifled just high over the crossbar from point-blank range.
The Ephs stayed composed and began to possess the ball a bit more as they half went on. Mid-way through, sophomore Ilana Albert gained control at midfield and made a run to the Captains goal, ripping a shot from about 30 yards out. The ball hit off the upper arm of a CNU defender at the top of the box and caromed to the right, where the opportunistic Scire raced onto it and quickly flicked a difficult-angle shot back to her left that nestled itself inside the left post with 22:33 remaining in the half for a 1-0 lead.
"Ilana made an incredible dynamic run inside and I just continued my run like I've been told to do 1,000 times," Scire said. "And it worked out for the best."
With 15:22 left in the first half, CNU's senior All-American Gabby Gillis found some loose space, deftly moving around an Eph defender and firing a shot from22 yards out that went just wide left. The Ephs began to mount counterattacks, and one in 39th minute nearly made it 2-0 as Mikayla Kappes crossed a ball into the box to Aspen Pierson, who hard shot was blocked. the ball caromed back to Eph All-American defender Sarah Kelly, and she ripped a beautiful shot toward the upper 90 on the far right that Captains' keeper Haley Eiser made a leaping effort on to push over the crossbar.
CNU came out with its engine on high to start the second half and nearly gained the equalizer just 69 seconds in when Maddie Cochran took advantage of a bad clear and took a shot from inside the 18. Barnhill raced out to made a beautiful sliding save and, after a few harrowing moments of the ball bouncing freely around the Ephs' six, Maria Chapman was able to clear it out of harms way.
The Ephs answered with their own opportunity five minutes in when Lauren Brown delivered a beautiful through ball that Scire dashed in for, only to be beat to the ball by a sliding Eiser a moment before she could reach it. That play would prove prophetic however, as just over two minutes later, Liz Girvan gained control of the ball at the midfield stripe and sent another dazzling through ball toward the Captains goal. Scire turned on her jets, turned inside to the left of a CNU defender and reached the ball at the top of the box. Eiser had come racing out as the play developed, and the Ephs junior simply flicked a shot to the right that beat the goalkeeper and bounced into an unattended net.
"Girvan put an incredible through ball right to my feet," Scire said. "That's stuff we've been working on all season, it comes with a lot of hard work and a lot of failure. So the fact that it worked out tonight was a product of that hard work finally paying off. I'm incredibly proud of my team tonight."
Down two goals, CNU pressed forward, but the Ephs held strong and had several dangerous opportunities to make it a three-goal advantage. The back of Chapman, Kelly, Nkem Iregbulem, Liz Webber was supported beautifully by midfielders Pierson and Laino, who not only stopped dynamic runs, but blocked shot after shot. However, somehow the Ephs found another gear defensively and, after a Cochran header that Barnhill stopped with 17:44 left, did not allow a shot on goal the remainder of the game.
"Our defensive effort was outstanding," Barnhill said. "Something we've been working hard on all year and really prided ourselves on, is how hard we work and how tough we are in our 1 v. 1 defending. I thought what won us this game was 1 v. 1 defending."
That 1 v. 1 defending was coupled with some outstanding toughness combined with the skill to stop a run and take a ball away from an opponent, which also helped the Ephs' counterattack as well as they did.
"I think we were able to attack because we were defending so well," Laino said. "I think coming into this game we knew (winning the ball) was going to be key. They obviously have really amazing players who can takes shots from a distance and our also really good on the dribble. I think in the second half especially, we adjusted slightly and had a little tighter cover so we did a better job denying them the ball or, if they got the ball, denying them the shot."
CNU had a 19-11 shot advantange and took four corner kicks to the Ephs two. Barnhill finished with four saves, while Eiser had two.