Ephs squeeze past Camels in NESCAC quarters
WILLIAMSTOWN, MA--The streaks live on.
A gritty effort and some timely finishing buoyed the top-seeded Williams men’s soccer team (No. 9 nationally) to a 2-1 victory over Connecticut College in the NESCAC quarterfinals on Saturday. The Ephs (13-0-2, 8-0-2 NESCAC regular season) ran their winning streak to seven and their unbeaten streak to 15 with the victory, while the Camels closed out their season at 5-4-6 (1-3-6 NESCAC regular season).
As one might expect in a playoff contest, the early moments of the game were defined by spirited and up-tempo play, although it was nearly 12 minutes before the Camels’ Kevin O’Brien recorded the game’s first shot, although it was deflected harmlessly away for a corner kick.
Less than two minutes later, the Camels’ second shot nearly put them on the scoreboard. An Eph turnover sprung Billy Hawkey down the left flank. As he neared the 18-yard-box, Hawkey looked up and sent a brilliant, arcing cross squarely into the path of streaking Matthew Bitchell. Bitchell timed his volley perfectly and beat Williams keeper Peter Morrell, but the shot clanged high off the crossbar and denied the freshman a goal in his first postseason appearance.
Connecticut continued to press forward, however, and they finally broke through in the 26thminute. A looping throw-in down the left side found its way to Hawkey, who once again broke deep into Willliams territory. This time, Hawkey took two big touches before sending a low, curling shot that bent past a diving Morrell and into the side netting for a 1-0 Camel lead.
For the first time all year, the Ephs found themselves trailing at home, but as has so often been the case this season, the setback seemed to spur rather than deter them. After being outplayed by the Camels, the Ephs began to turn the tide immediately after the goal and seemed poised to find an equalizer at any moment.
“We’ve been there before,” said Coach Mike Russo afterward, alluding to the Ephs’ comeback victories over Westfield State, Hamilton, and Bowdoin earlier in the year. “The guys have a confidence and a belief about themselves.”
And sure enough, the Ephs struck back in the 33rd minute. A handball just outside the box yielded a free kick for Williams, which Mohammed Rashid took after delaying for several seconds after the referee’s whistle. Rashid’s shot was blocked the by the Conn. wall, but the rebound fell fortuitously to fullback Chris Seitz, who had won a battle for position prior to the kick. Seitz squibbed a lazy cross through the box, where it was tapped in by User Kushaina to even up the score heading into the break.
Williams emerged from halftime with the momentum completely on their side and quickly notched the go-ahead goal. A failed Camel clearance landed at the feet of Michael Madding, who sent a long ball for Rashid that drew Conn. goalie Max Nichols out of his net. While Rashid lost the header to a Camel fullback, the ball came down for Williams midfielder Patrick Ebobisse, who kept his cool and sent a simple volley into the unoccupied net just 1:45 into the half.
Though the Ephs controlled play for some time afterwards, they failed to capitalize on their opportunities, and Conn. gradually turned things around as the half wore on and desperation began to set in for the Camels. Perhaps their best chance came in the 34th minute, when the Camels were awarded a series of three corner kicks within the space of a minute-and-a-half. On the second of those, taken by Nick Maghenzani, Ryland Hormel’s diving header seemed destined to find the back of the net, only to bounce off of Morrell’s elbow and out of play.
While the Camels did not let down after that near-miss--indeed, they were determined as ever and continued to pin the Ephs deep in their own end--they never again came quite so close to knotting the score. The final horn sounded some 10 minutes later, and the Ephs had a hard-fought victory.
“I was very pleased with the effort,” said Russo. “I thought the guys gritted it out, and we hung on.”
The Ephs will now host the NESCAC semifinals next weekend, where they will take on either Tufts or Bowdoin at 11:00 AM. Wesleyan and Amherst will square off in the other semifinal match at 1:30 PM. The winner of those games will then compete for the conference championship at noon the following day.
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