The final whistle of last Saturday’s NCAA Championship first round clash between West Virginia and Princeton prompted anguished scenes in Morgantown. The Mountaineers’ players sank to the Dick Dlesk Stadium turf blankly gazing into the night sky or despondently staring at their feet. Senior Bry McCarthy lay flat on her back, her collegiate career having been terminated by the Tigers’ 2-1 win.
“I just don’t think the soccer gods were with us tonight,” said WVU head coach Nikki Izzo-Brown during her post-game press conference. “It’s a very cruel sport.”
West Virginia battered the Ivy League champions during the first half without finding a way past Princeton goalkeeper Claire Pinciaro. Lynessa McGee’s deflected shot gave the visitors a fifth-minute lead and set up a precarious position for WVU – push forward to save the season, but risk leaving space for the excellent Jen Hoy to exploit on the counter-attack. Hoy, the Ivy League’s Player of the Year and top goalscorer, proved to be the game winner when she broke away to give the Tigers an unassailable two-goal advantage nine minutes into the second half.
Hoy had given glimpses of her talent earlier in the game. She cut in off the left flank on 11 minutes to thump a shot off the underside of Sara Keane’s crossbar, and she’d drifted past McCarthy, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, on a couple of occasions. But she’d largely been marginalized as West Virginia’s forwards found their way behind Princeton’s high defensive line to create a string of chances.
Rookie Kelsie Maloney fired a shot straight at Pinciaro on 18 minutes after stepping inside her marker. Senior Bri Rodriguez’s viciously inswinging cross narrowly evaded Kate Schwindel’s outstretched cleat on 26 minutes, and WVU’s top scorer Frances Silva saw her shot deflected onto the crossbar five minutes later.
Pinciaro produced the save of the game on 33 minutes, magnificently stopping Schwindel’s 16-yard blast low to her left, and the senior goalkeeper pushed Silva’s header around her near post on 36 minutes. Maloney floated a curling effort onto the roof of Pinciaro’s goal two minutes later, and Schwindel cracked a drive against the bar two minutes before the end of the half.
Princeton head coach Julie Shackford tweaked her defense at the interval with her team dropping deeper to prevent WVU finding the spaces behind them in wide areas. That also invited the hosts, and in particular the attacking left-back McCarthy, to push forward and play into Hoy’s hands.
Caitlin Blosser slotted a pass into space vacated by McCarthy on 54 minutes as Princeton decisively countered. Hoy outsprinted freshman center-back Leah Emaus to the ball before dancing around Keane to net a sensational solo goal. The Mountaineers were stunned and suddenly Princeton threatened to disappear over the horizon as Hoy hit a rich vein of form.
The senior from Sellersville, Pa. left McCarthy in her wake again on 58 minutes before setting up Blosser, but Princeton’s central striker fired wide. Blosser found Hoy in space on the right again on 73 minutes, but this time Emaus provided cover and forced a 20-yard shot that Keane comfortably saved.
It took until the final 10 minutes for the shell-shocked Mountaineers to regain the upper hand and pressurize the Tigers’ defense. Pinciaro spilled Schwindel’s cross only to see the loose ball rebound back into her grasp off Maloney. Silva gave WVU hope when she headed Maloney’s cross in off Pinciaro’s left post to cut the deficit with eight minutes remaining.
Maloney beat Princeton right-back Gabrielle Ragazzo again a minute later before picking out McCarthy in the penalty area. The Canadian international had a clear sight of goal, but she miscued her volley to the edge of the box. Rodriguez followed up to shoot over the crossbar.
Izzo-Brown resembled an auxiliary right-winger by this point, sprinting up the touchline along her technical area as she willed her team forward. Schwindel blazed a shot over the bar from Rodriguez’ cutback with two minutes left, and the sophomore forward dragged WVU’s final attempt across the face of goal and too far beyond Maloney’s reach. West Virginia’s 20 shots had yielded just one goal.
“That’s just the way soccer is sometimes,” said Silva after the game. “It’s hard to sit here and say we did this wrong or we did that wrong. It’s just the way the game played out. I think everyone played their heart out and that’s all you can ask for.”
Silva, her voice quivering as she wrestled with the pain of the season-ending defeat, spared a thought for West Virginia’s fallen senior class that helped the school to back-to-back Big East championships in 2010 and 2011 and this year’s Big 12 regular-season title.
“It sucks, especially being a junior and having been with the senior class for as long as I’ve been, seeing them going out like this,” Silva said.
“I definitely don’t want to go out like that.”
Ian Thomson is a freelance soccer reporter and founder of The Soccer Observer Web site. Follow him on Twitter at @SoccerObserver.