BACK-TO-BACK CHAMPIONS
Issue   |   Thu, 11/08/2012 - 20:16
David Van Wie
The No. 2 ranked Jeffs (15-0-2) earned a first-round bye in the NCAA Championship. They will host the winner of Dickinson College (12-4-2) and Westfield State (9-9-2) on Saturday at 1:00 p.m.

Bolstered by stingy defense and a relentless, high-tempo style on offense, the men’s soccer team captured its second consecutive NESCAC championship last weekend, beating Williams 2-0 in the final to secure the trophy.

“Winning a NESCAC title against Williams is something that every Amherst soccer player dreams of doing,” co-captain James Mooney ’13E said.

The undefeated Jeffs (15-0-2, 8-0-2 NESCAC) earned back-to-back league titles for the first time in school history. Amherst has now won three of the past five NESCAC championships.

The Jeffs began their title defense with a convincing 4-0 win against Middlebury in the quarterfinals two weekends ago. Traveling to Williamstown for the semifinals, Amherst grinded out a 1-0 victory over Wesleyan before shutting out the Ephs 2-0 this past Sunday.

“We put so much time and effort into every season, and to see that manifested in a NESCAC championship is satisfying beyond words,” head coach Justin Serpone said.

Sunday’s match between Amherst and Williams (13-1-3, 8-0-2 NESCAC) marked the first time in history that two undefeated teams squared off in the NESCAC final. The archrivals battled to a 0-0 tie in their lone regular season meeting back in early October; the Jeffs were held scoreless despite holding a 25-9 shots advantage.

In the postgame huddle after the 0-0 draw — which pushed Amherst’s winless streak against Williams to four games [0-1-3 since 2008] — Serpone reassured his frustrated team that “we’re going to get another chance at these guys in November.”

Determined to finally pummel and outclass their archrivals in the NESCAC final, the Jeffs blitzed Williams in the early stages of Sunday’s championship contest, scoring twice in the first 15 minutes to grab control of the match.

The Jeffs stunned the Ephs with a brilliant goal just 73 seconds after the opening whistle. Gathering the ball from about 30 yards out, Chris Lerner ’13 swerved a cross into the box. Jae Heo ’14 leapt into the area and deftly glanced a header past Williams goalkeeper Than Finan, sending the adrenalized Jeffs’ bench into a frenzy.

“Early in the game we came out flying and with high pressure,” Mooney said. “This high pressure and overwhelming energy has been the key to our success throughout this season.”

Inspired by the early goal, the Jeffs began to dominate the flow of play against the shell-shocked Ephs, pinning Williams deep in their end for long stretches.

The Jeffs dealt another devastating blow to the Ephs at the 15:24 mark, as Mooney scored to give Amherst a 2-0 lead.

Standing by the right sideline, Lerner created the opportunity by lofting a long throw into the box; six-foot-four Gabriel Wirz ’15 head-flicked the ball toward Mooney, who rifled a quick shot into the top left corner of the net.

“The desperation to win from each player was infectious, and allowed us to overwhelm Williams,” Mooney said.

Embracing a direct, aggressive style of offense — rather than sitting back and casually possessing the ball — Amherst continued to attack the Ephs’ beleaguered defensive corps, building a 12-1 shots advantage in the first half.

“We were ready to play and executed the game plan to perfection,” Serpone said. “They are a pretty good team and to outshoot them 12-1 in the first half on their home field is pretty impressive. I was proud of our effort.”

Heo nearly extended the lead to 3-0 in the 18th minute, exchanging a crafty give-and-go on a short-corner kick with Brendan Caslin ’14 before releasing a sharp-angle shot from close range, but Finan was able to corral the attempt. Five minutes later, Spencer Noon ’13 sent a header just over the crossbar after a free kick from Caslin.

In the second half, the Jeffs adopted a more defensive posture, as the Ephs desperately pushed forward on offense.

Even as Williams wrestled control of play in the final 45 minutes, Amherst’s tenacious backline of Lerner, Wirz, Julien Aoyama ’14 and Ben Norton ’14 repeatedly stifled the Ephs’ attacking thrusts, while first-year goalkeeper Thomas Bull delivered a couple of strong saves late in the match to preserve the shutout. The Jeffs have conceded only two goals in 17 games this season — translating to a nation-best 0.12 goals-conceded per game.

“After we got these two goals, I was fully confident in our defense to make the plays needed to close out the game,” Mooney said. “Our defense has been tremendous all season, and I thought every player was keyed in to every play throughout the entire 90 minutes of the game.”

The Ephs did not have a shot on goal until the 66th minute, when Williams’ Mohammed Rashid unleashed a free kick that forced Bull to move to his right for the save. While the Ephs began to exert consistent attacking pressure in the latter stages of the match, Amherst continued to create dangerous opportunities on the counterattack.

In the 78th minute, the Jeffs enjoyed a string of high-quality chances, as Max Fikke ’14 had his short-range blast parried away by Finan. On the ensuing corner kick, Mooney sent a looping header that grazed off the crossbar.

Williams had a last-gasp chance at a goal in the 87th minute, when the Ephs’ Matt Castner laid out for diving header in the box, but Bull lunged to his right and deflected the ball out for a corner, arguably making one of his most spectacular saves of the season.

“I thought every single guy played well Sunday,” Serpone said. “The forwards created chances, the midfielders grinded for 90 minutes, the defense didn’t give them any space and our goalkeeper came up big when he needed to. We played 90 minutes of complete soccer.”

In the semifinals, the Jeffs eked past Wesleyan 1-0 in what Serpone characterized as an “okay performance.” Fikke scored the decisive goal in the 34th minute, while the Jeffs’ rock-solid defense limited the Cardinals to just two shots on net.

“We spent a majority of the second half defending our one-goal lead while Wesleyan possessed and attacked, but our defense came in clutch and guided us through to the end of the game,” Mooney said.

Having secured back-to-back NESCAC titles, the Jeffs will now look to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

Seeded No. 2 in the national bracket, the Jeffs will enjoy a first-round bye before facing either Dickinson or Westfield State in the second round this Sunday.

“We are entering into a one game season from here on out,” Serpone said. “Nothing we’ve accomplished this year matters at this point so we need to stay hungry and focused and try our best at every moment.”

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