Soccer Tops Williams in NESCAC Championship
Issue   |   Wed, 11/13/2013 - 00:52
Rob Mattson, Public Affairs Office
Sophomore Nico Pascual-Leone dribbles in between two Williams defenders who could only look on as they saw their NESCAC championship hopes fall short in their 1-0 loss at the hands of Amherst.

On Sunday, Nov. 10, Men’s Soccer won the NESCAC Title for the third straight season and the fourth time in program history after defeating No. 3 Williams in a 1-0 battle. The previous day the top-seeded Jeffs knocked off No. 5 Bowdoin in double overtime by a score of 2-1 to advance to the NESCAC Finals. With their two most recent victories, the Jeffs extended their unbeaten streak to 37 games and now have their sights on making a deep run in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

Although Amherst defeated Bowdoin 3-0 in the regular season, the Jeffs’ NESCAC Semifinals contest against the Polar Bears would not be easy as Bowdoin looked to earn its first-ever bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The Polar Bears controlled possession in the opening stages of the game, as they racked up five corner kicks in just over 15 minutes. However, Amherst’s stifling defense kept the Polar Bears off the board early on.

Momentum soon shifted to Amherst, as the Jeffs jumped ahead in the 17th minute. On a corner kick from sophomore striker Nico Pascual-Leone, senior Ben Norton headed the ball in past the goal line to give Amherst a 1-0 lead.

Minutes later, Bowdoin midfielder Matt Dias Costa took the first shot of the match for the Polar Bears, but he put it wide of the net.

It appeared as though Amherst might take a 2-0 lead into halftime after forward Elliot Cassutt ’17 moved past Bowdoin defenders and into the open field, but Bowdoin goalkeeper Noah Safian cut off Cassutt’s attempt to score before he could muster a shot.

The game headed to halftime with Amherst leading 1-0. In the first 45 minutes of action, Amherst took five shots (two on goal), while the Polar Bears managed two shots (one on goal). Bowdoin had eight corner kicks in the first half, while Amherst attempted three corner kicks, but it was the Jeffs who capitalized on a scoring opportunity off a set piece, as Norton’s goal came from Amherst’s second corner of the day.

Norton looked to add his second goal of the game off a corner kick sent in by senior midfielder Max Fikke, but a Bowdoin defender was there to stop it.

Bowdoin would equalize less than 20 minutes into the second half, as an initial Bowdoin shot attempt bounced to Dias Costa, who then kicked it towards the back right corner of the net for his fourth goal of the season.

In the final minutes of regulation, junior midfielder Mikey Hoeksema almost gave the Jeffs a late lead, but Safian was able to preserve the tie score and send the game into overtime.

The Polar Bears were knocking on the door of victory in the first overtime. A Polar Bear attacker drew Amherst goalie Thomas Bull ’16 away from net, but an incredible effort from Bull prevented Bowdoin midfielder Thomas Henshall from scoring, as he moved across the goal and made a quick swipe to keep the Jeffs in the match.

With less than four minutes remaining in double overtime, the Jeffs would prevail. From the left side of the field, first-year defender Justin Aoyama received a pass from senior Brendan Caslin and rifled it past the dive of Safian to the right side of the net to give the Jeffs a 2-1 victory over Bowdoin.

“Justin Aoyama picked a pretty good time to score his first college goal,” said Fikke, one of four senior captains (along with Caslin, Norton and Julien Aoyama). “He has been great for us all year and I’m thrilled that he now has a playoff OT goal to show for it.”

Aoyama’s first-career goal set up a repeat NESCAC Championship matchup from a year ago against No. 3 Williams at Hitchcock Field on Sunday. The Jeffs looked to defeat arch-rival Williams for the second time this season after their devastating penalty kick loss to the Ephs in the 2012 NCAA Elite Eight. The Ephs entered the NESCAC Finals coming off a 2-1 win against No. 2 Wesleyan in the NESCAC Semifinals.

Less than five minutes into the game, junior Gabriel Wirz hit the crossbar and narrowly missed putting the Jeffs ahead. In the national quarterfinals against Williams in 2012, the Jeffs hit the crossbar five separate times and were unable to score, but the 2013 NESCAC Championship would follow a different story for the Jeffs.

Shortly thereafter, Williams’ Mohammed Rashid played the ball to the corner of the net and lured Bull from goal, but Justin Aoyama followed up from his NESCAC Semifinals game-winner the day before by stopping Rashid’s shot and keeping the score knotted at zero.

Neither goalkeeper made a save over the first 45 minutes, as a defensive battle and a fight to control possession ensued between the Jeffs and the Ephs in the first half of play.

Just over three minutes into the second half of play, Fikke put the Jeffs ahead 1-0. Standing in the middle of the 18-yard box, Fikke, off an assist from Wirz, managed to head the ball in over the head of Williams goalie Peter Morrell, who was charging away from goal in an effort to keep the ball out of the danger zone.

Midway through the second half, Williams had a good chance to score, as forward Dan Lima struck a shot towards the top of the net, but Bull came up with yet another clutch save by punching the ball over the goal.

The Jeffs would hold on the 1-0 lead thanks to strong defensive play the rest of the way.

With his goal early in the second half, which proved to be the game-winner, Fikke earned his second game-winning goal against Williams this season (having previously scored in dramatic fashion to carry Amherst to a 1-0 double overtime victory at Williams in September) and was recognized as the NESCAC Player of the Week for his winning efforts.

“I think Max Fikke became a legend right before our eyes with that goal in the final,” said head coach Justin Serpone. “Two game winners against Williams in his senior year? That’ll be talked about for a long time to come.”

With the NESCAC Championship win, Amherst improved to 15-0-2 and completed a season in which the Jeffs won both the NESCAC regular season and postseason title.

“I’m most proud about how this team has allowed themselves to be coached,” Serpone said. “Right from the first practice, we’ve [had] a lot of new faces on the field and [put] players in different positions and each player has stepped up in different circumstances. I can’t remember a season where so many different players might play five minutes in one game and 60 minutes in another and understand and accept their role to the fullest. Total unselfishness and that’s the main reason we won a championship.”

Now, the Jeffs prepare for the NCAA Tournament, which will be Amherst’s eighth straight appearance in the tournament and 13th overall trip. The Jeffs will host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament at Hitchcock Field, with their first game scheduled against Bridgewater State (10-7-3 on the season and winners of the MASCAC conference) on Saturday, Nov. 16 at 1:30 p.m. The winner of Amherst vs. Bridgewater State will face the winner of Gordon College (18-2-0) vs. Eastern Conn. State (12-3-4) at 1 p.m. on Sunday.

“The NCAA Tournament is a totally different ballgame now,” Coach Serpone said. “It’s a one game season. The one thing I can guarantee is that we’re going to try hard. We’ll see where it goes from there. There’s nothing better than college soccer in November.”

Fikke agreed.

“I don’t think any of us feel content with what we’ve achieved so far,” Fikke said. “This Saturday starts the last chapter of our season, and at this point it’s about staying humble and hungry. We’re continuing to battle in practice and get better every day to give us a shot at just winning the next game. And that’s all we’re focused on.”

While Amherst knocked off Williams and earned an automatic NCAA Tournament bid, the Ephs received an at-large bid and the two rivals are on a potential collision course to face one another with a trip to the Final Four on the line in a rematch of last year’s Elite Eight.

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