Trailing 1-0 to Williams with just 7:30 remaining in the NESCAC championship final on Sunday, the Amherst women’s soccer team — despite outplaying the Ephs for long stretches — was teetering on the brink of a painful defeat.
The resilient Jeffs, however, staged a sensational comeback, netting two goals in the final minutes to secure a 2-1 victory. By capturing their first NESCAC title since 2003, the Jeffs (17-0-0) kept their perfect record intact, and also avenged last year’s championship loss to Williams, a 1-0 defeat that ended Amherst’s 2010 season.
“The whole thing still seems surreal to me. It’s hard to put into words what winning a NESCAC championship means, not only to me, but to my class and to my teammates,” captain Jill Kochanek ’12 said. “To be able to beat Williams at home to win a championship is an unbelievable feeling.”
For a moment, it looked as if the Jeffs would endure a case of déjà vu, down 1-0 to their archrivals with 7:30 on the clock. But midfield dynamo Kathryn Nathan ’13 scored a jaw-dropping goal to spark the Jeffs, and Sandy Shepherd ’13 scored two minutes later to cap an impressive rally, reversing the script to stun Williams.
“I remember looking at the clock with 10 minutes left and thinking we had plenty of time,” Kochanek said. “We have so much fire-power up top and we had been creating so many chances throughout the game so I was really confident that we were going to score.”
While the Ephs (10-4-3) were gunning for their fifth consecutive NESCAC crown, the Jeffs entered the match as the consensus favorite; unbeaten Amherst had defeated Williams 3-0 in the regular season matchup in early October.
Motivated to crush Williams after the devastating loss last season, Amherst began the championship match with an attacking flair, creating a flurry of scoring chances in the opening 15 minutes.
The Jeffs arguably had their best scoring chance of the match just 1:50 into the game. Receiving a pass in the 18-yard box, Chloe McKenzie ’14 gained enough space from a defender to fire the ball past Williams goalkeeper Laura Wann, but the shot rattled off the left post.
Minutes later, Ariana Twomey ’15 flicked a header from a corner kick, but her effort drifted just wide of the far post. At the 11:17 mark, Nathan corralled a loose ball at the top of the 18-yard box, but her left-footed shot rolled about a foot wide of the left post.
After weathering a slew of Amherst scoring chances, the Ephs shocked the Jeffs with a goal against the run of play in the 38th minute. Williams’ Carla Nicasio lofted a high cross from the left side, enabling Lilly Wellenbach — a towering presence at 5’11 — to head the ball into the net.
Jolted by the unexpected deficit, the Jeffs nearly scored an equalizer in the 41st minute, when Mel Stier ’15 cleanly beat a defender on the left side of the box. After her initial shot was blocked by a sliding Wann about 10 yards out, Stier poked the loose rebound past the goalkeeper, but an Ephs’ defender cleared the ball off the goal line.
The Jeffs found themselves down 1-0 at the half despite out-shooting Williams by a 15-3 margin. While Amherst continued to dominate possession in the second half, the Ephs’ backline tightened and allowed fewer scoring chances as the Jeffs seemed to be running out of time.
But the never-say-die Jeffs amped up the offensive pressure in the final ten minutes to rally for the victory. With 7:30 left in regulation, Nathan rescued the Jeffs with a spectacular goal. Gathering a loose ball from about 25 yards out, Nathan dribbled up to the box before unleashing a left-footed shot from a tough angle. While the ball lacked pace – Nathan released the shot while falling backward – it sailed perfectly into the upper-right corner of the net, over the outstretched arms of a startled Wann.
Galvanized by the season-saving goal, the Jeffs continued to exert pressure on a deflated Ephs’ side. After the Jeffs sustained a stretch of possession in the Williams half, Wann let what should have been an easy save slip under her hands and out of bounds, giving Amherst a free corner kick in the 85th minute.
On the ensuing set piece, Nathan delivered a dangerous cross into the box. With much scuffling near the front post, an unmarked Sandy Shepherd ’13 sprinted to the far post before heading the ball past Wann. An Ephs’ defender nearly cleared the ball off the line, but referees deemed that she was behind the goal line as the Jeffs celebrated a 2-1 lead.
“We have put big goals away in big games earlier this season, and so our team was familiar with this pressure and I think we all believed that we were going to do what it took to win,” Kochanek said.
From there, the Amherst backline stifled the Ephs to preserve the victory. Jubilant players mobbed each other after the final whistle, savoring victory from the jaws of defeat, while a large crowd of students also sprinted onto the field.
In Saturday’s semifinal action, the Jeffs overwhelmed fifth-seeded Wesleyan 3-0, using three second-half goals to bury the Cardinals. Wesleyan started the match in an ultra-defensive formation, hoping to keep the Jeffs scoreless long enough to force a penalty kick shoot-out. The Cardinals’ defensive shell held in the first 45 minutes, as the game remained scoreless at halftime. Amherst dictated the flow of play – building a 13-2 advantage in shots – but their dominance was not reflected on the scoreboard.
After a frustrating first half, the Jeffs stormed out to a quick start in the second stanza, as Chloe McKenzie ’14 scored on a header 3:27 into the stanza to give Amherst a 1-0 advantage. The offensive-minded hosts extended their lead to 2-0 in the 70th minute with Emma Rothkopf s ’15 first collegiate goal, and Emily Little ’13 capped the scoring with an insurance marker in the 80th minute.
Fresh from a victory over Williams, the 8th-ranked Jeffs will return to action when they host Castleton State this Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.