The Jeffs found themselves in a difficult spot on semifinal Saturday. The NESCAC’s top seed and regular season champ was down 1-0 against Middlebury, the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year and had participated in the last five championship games. But the Jeffs came back to win 2-1 in double overtime before dispatching Trinity 2-0 in the title game on Sunday.
Middlebury got on the scoreboard early, scoring off a corner less than four minutes from the opening whistle. They did not let up, outshooting the Jeffs 5-4 and holding a 2-0 corner advantage in the first half. But the Panthers squandered a number of scoring chances that could have extended their lead.
“Middlebury completely outplayed us in the first half,” head coach Justin Serpone said. “They were tougher than us, more determined than us and executed better than us. We were lucky to be only down 1-0 at the half.”
In the second half, the Jeffs returned to their regular-season form and played like the team that bested the Panther’s 3-0 earlier in the season. They increased their work rate and played with a sense of desperation coming out of the break.
“The coaching staff really got into us and reminded us of the importance of the game.” Thebe Tsatsimpe ’12 recalled.
Both teams had a number of chances early in the second half, but a combination of stellar goalkeeping and missed opportunities preserved the score line with the Panthers leading 1-0. Middlebury almost scored when midfielder Otis Pitney blasted a powerful shot from just outside the six-yard box. Keeper Lennard Kovacs ’12 scrambled to punch the try over the bar for a corner.
The Jeffs best chance came in the 69th minute, when first-year Milton Rico floated a ball over the defenders toward the back post. Federico Sucre ’13 attempted to volley the ball around a charging goalkeeper but missed wide left.
Continuing to apply pressure, the Jeffs won a throw-in with just over 10 minutes remaining. Max Fikke ’14 threw a long ball into the box. After the ensuing chaos of missed clearances and short passes, Federico Sucre tracked down a loose ball to climactically tie the game.
According to co-captain Thebe Tsatsimpe ’12, the Jeffs were not content with simply forcing overtime. “We agreed as a team to try winning the game as opposed to playing it safe; that’s why we kept attacking after the goal and into overtime. We could tell that we had momentum so we had to use it as much as possible.” Middlebury threatened again just five minutes later, but Kovacs made a diving save and secured the ball to send the game to overtime.
The Jeffs dominated the first overtime, holding a majority of the possessions. Their best scoring chance came with two minutes left to play. Alejandro Sucre ’13 tracked a loose ball near the right corner of the box.
He faced much defensive pressure and a fast-closing Panther keeper, and his shot grazed the top of the crossbar before going out of play.
Amherst came out strong in the second overtime “golden goal” period, when Spencer Noon ’13 missed high on a headed attempt. Minutes later, the Jeffs won a corner. Federico Sucre put a blistering header on goal, but the defense cleared it from the goal line in the direction of Ben Norton ’14. Norton’s shot hit the back of the net to give the Jeffs a hard-fought victory over their rival.
The win felt all the sweeter after the rough start, Tsatsimpe said. “I was proud at how our team responded to adversity. We never gave up hope.”
Kovacs agreed: “The whole team believed that we were going to win this and was determined to not go into a penalty shootout.”
The final against Trinity was much less climactic. The Bantams started strong in the early minutes. Kovacs was forced to make a pair of diving saves and concede corners, and Norton blocked a Trinity shot in front of goal. Noon nearly scored 12 minutes into the game, but his attempt was saved. He scored on his next opportunity with an amazing aerial display.
At the 25:52 mark, defender Sam Kaplan’ 12 took a free kick from 30 yards out and found Federico Sucre’s head. Sucre headed a perfect pass to Noon at the penalty spot. Noon was wide open, but had his back to the goal. He acrobatically spun in the air and sideway-bicycled a kick with his left foot. The ball hit the bottom of the crossbar and bounced over the goal line before bouncing back out of the goal.
Serpone said, “It might be the best goal Noon’s scored at Amherst. It takes a special player to pull something off like that and I couldn’t be more proud of him for that goal...not just because it was a great one, but because it was ultimately the game-winner in the NESCAC final.
The Jeffs scored their next goal less than three minutes into the second half. Chris Lerner ’13 sent in a free kick from the right side. He found Federico Sucre, who beat the keeper with a header.
The Jeff defense did not allow a shot on goal in the second half. Kovacs credited the rest of the team: “A shutout always is the result of a full team effort.” Serpone, in turn, praised the senior keeper. “I thought we defended better in the final than we have all year. Our shape was terrific and everyone was responsible. Kovacs and Kaplan did a great job of leading us to the shutout.”
Serpone was also proud of the all-around team effort. “This championship is special because I know how much it mattered to the guys. That’s the best part of the job...watching such a great group of young men accomplish a goal. I’m so proud of them.”
Though they have accomplished their goal of winning the NESCAC championship, the season is not over yet. The Jeffs will host the NCAA tournament as they take on Husson this Saturday.