Penalty Kicked Out of the Tourney
Issue   |   Tue, 11/27/2012 - 22:13
Rob Mattson, Public Affairs Office

Soccer can be a cruel sport, a game in which it’s often better to be lucky than good.

Derailed by five shots off the crossbar, the men’s soccer team suffered a devastating loss to Williams in the NCAA Quarterfinals last Sunday, battling to a 0-0 tie in regulation before falling 4-3 in penalty kicks.

Amherst (17-0-3) controlled play for the majority of the contest — outshooting the Ephs 23-7 and peppering the Williams’ box with corner kicks and long throw-ins all afternoon — but inexplicably failed to find the back of the net.

“I think we played hard and with purpose,” head coach Justin Serpone said. “I was so proud of our effort and thought we deserved a better result, but that’s the game of soccer.”

Unable to bury any of their opportunities in regulation, the Jeffs found themselves at the mercy of a penalty kick shootout. At the heart-breaking conclusion, the teary-eyed Jeffs stared in disbelief as the ecstatic Ephs mobbed each other on Hitchcock Field.

Amherst, ranked No. 2 in the country, had appeared primed to make a serious run for its first NCAA Division III championship. Earlier in the season, the Jeffs captured back-to-back NESCAC titles for the first time in school history, blowing by Williams 2-0 in the final.

In the end, however, the underdog Ephs had the last laugh, slipping into the Final Four in an improbable fashion. Williams (16-1-4) will take on Ohio Northern (24-2-0) next weekend in the NCAA semifinals in San Antonio, Texas. Loras (Iowa) and Messiah (Pa.) round out the Final Four.

The Jeffs, on the other hand, ended the season with a bitter taste in their mouths, knowing that they were inches away from advancing to the Final Four.

“I told them life isn’t always fair or work out the way you imagine but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give you heart and soul to whatever the next thing you are trying to accomplish in life,” Serpone said. “I was at a loss for words.”

The Jeffs started the match brightly, nearly grabbing a 1-0 lead in the third minute. After receiving a header flick-on from Milton Rico ’15 in the box, Jae Heo ’14 ripped a volley off the top of the crossbar, the first of many agonizing misses for Amherst.

In the 42nd minute, the Jeffs struck the woodwork two times in rapid succession. Using his trademark speed and clever footwork, fullback Julien Aoyama ’14 cut inside from the right flank before unleashing a left-footed shot from 25 yards out.

Aoyama’s attempt flew right through the hands of Williams goalkeeper Than Finan, but ricocheted off the crossbar. On the ensuing rebound, Rico sent a blistering volley from the top of the box, but his effort was also denied by the crossbar.

Sustaining pressure in the Ephs’ half for long stretches, the Jeffs hit the maligned crossbar once again in the 62nd minute.

After his long throw-in was cleared by the Williams defense, Chris Lerner ’13 spun a cross from the left side to Spencer Noon ’13, but the senior forward thumped his header off the crossbar.

With Amherst continuing to bombard the Williams box with an endless stream of set pieces, Federico Sucre ’13 sent a glancing header on goal in the 74th minute after a booming free kick by goalkeeper Thomas Bull ’16, but Finan dove to his left to corral the attempt.

Holding a defensive shell for much of the match, Williams began to mount dangerous counterattacks late in the second half. In the 77th minute, Ephs’ winger Mohammed Rashid drove a low, incisive ball across the goal mouth from the right flank, but the cross skipped past everyone before Bull audaciously sprinted from his goal line to snatch the ball away from an incoming Williams attacker.

The pace of the game accelerated in the closing minutes, as both teams created prime scoring opportunities. Running down the left sideline in the 89th minute, the Ephs’ Geoff Danilack sent a centering pass into the box to User Kushaina, who found some space by left edge of the six-yard-box. Kushaina’s sharp-angle shot slid past Bull but rolled just wide of the far post.

In the 90th minute — with about 20 seconds on the clock — the Jeffs nearly put away their feisty archrivals when Gabriel Wirz ’15 sent a long, high twisting shot from 30 yards out, but Finan barely tipped the ball over the bar to keep the game deadlocked at 0-0.

The frenetic, back-and-forth action continued in the overtime periods. The Ephs continued to threaten on offense, as Rashid sent another low ball across the goal mouth in the 94th minute, just beyond the reach of a sliding Williams forward.

Four minutes later, the Jeffs hit their fifth crossbar of the afternoon. In almost identical fashion as before, Aoyama cut inside from the right flank, racing past a few Williams defenders before rifling a shot off the woodwork from near the top of the 18-yard-box.

The Jeffs had one last good scoring chance in the 108th minute, two minutes before the final horn sounded. After a long-throw into the box, the ball bounced to Heo, who had a defender harassing him from behind. Caught in the middle of a desperate scrum, Heo managed to turn and strike a right-footed volley, but the attempt went just wide, grazing the side netting.

After 110 minutes of scoreless, breakneck soccer, Amherst and Williams went to penalty kicks. Both teams failed to score on their first attempt, as Finan stoned Lerner before Bull responded with a diving one-handed save on Matt Ratajczak. Heo and Peter Christman then both converted in the second round.

In a cruel twist of fate, Aoyama (who had hit two crossbars in regulation) misfired on the third-round attempt, as his high shot veered over the crossbar. The Ephs connected on their last three tries to punch their ticket to the Final Four, with Patrick Ebobisse netting the decisive penalty.

“Soccer is sometimes difficult to understand,” Serpone said. “We created great chances but couldn’t finish them. I’m sure there were a lot of different factors that made that so, but ultimately it wasn’t meant to be.”

The Jeffs, who never trailed in a match this season, technically ended the year with an undefeated 17-0-3 record. Amherst set new single-season records in wins, shutouts (17), goals scored (56) and goals allowed (3). Bolstered by a tenacious backline that conceded just 0.15 goals per game, the Jeffs posted the second-lowest goals against average mark in NCAA Division III history.

“I’m not sure I’ll ever have a team that gives up three goals in 20 games again,” Serpone said. “Our team defense was spectacular this season.”

“It is impossible to be more proud of a team than I am of this group. I will miss seeing them everyday and I am grateful that we got the chance to spend the last three months together,” Serpone said. “I love them with all of my heart.”

The Jeffs will be losing a number of key pieces to graduation, including Noon (the program’s all-time leading scorer), Lerner, James Mooney and Federico and Alejandro Sucre. The Class of 2013 compiled a four-year record of (58-8-10).

“I don’t have the words to explain the impact of the class of 2013,” Serpone said. “Not only did they set all sorts of records on the field, but they were near-perfect off of it.”

“I can’t believe I am going to have to coach without them as part of our team next year. It hasn’t set in yet. I guess I’m just grateful to have had the opportunity to be around them for the past four years.”

Meredith Price (not verified) says:
Thu, 11/29/2012 - 10:40

We went into the William game 5-2; Willians 2-5. Only goal scored by W in the first 2 minutes of the gsme.

So it goes.