By Michael Battista
The College secured the top seed in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) playoffs on Wednesday, Oct. 26, with a win over second seed Rowan University, 2-0.
The win gave the College an undefeated record, posting 15-0-1, and a perfect 9-0 in NJAC play. Head coach Joe Russo said the team never intended to go undefeated, but played their best.
“It’s not a goal we set out to achieve,” Russo said. “It’s just a product of what we’ve been doing everyday… It’s the end result of what we do daily.”
Emotions ran high before the game even started as the Lions celebrated and honored their senior players for whom this would be their last regular season home game. Goalkeeper Jessica Weeder, midfielders Lauren Malajian, Sarah Marion, Marissa Scognamiglio, Marykate “MK” Sullivan, defender Brianna Petro and forward Christine Levering all received flowers, hugs and thanks from the fans and their teammates.
While Weeder graduated last year, she was eligible to play for another season because she was out one year due to injury.
Levering, whose 42 goals and 104 points as a Lion prior to the Rowan game ranks her seventh all-time and sixth in program history, respectively, said the whole ceremony was amazing and showed how much the team came together.
“It was unbelievable,” Levering said. “The underclasswomen are awesome. They really went beyond with how prepared they got for this game and how pumped up we got together. They showed tonight that we mean a lot to them and we put a lot of work in. Every win is as a team, but it meant so much tonight.”
The game itself was a defensive master class early on, as both nationally-ranked teams — the College ranked fifth and Rowan ranked 10th — put on a display during the first 45 minutes.
The Lions only got off three shots during the first half, while the Profs were unable to connect on any chances at all. Rowan also had better ball control during the first half, outmaneuvering and outpacing the Lions. Russo said that his team didn’t connect early on, and it showed in its play.
“I thought in the first half we were pretty lax in the midfield, and they were able to play through (it), switching the point, and it just put us under pressure,” Russo said.
Freshman defender Taylor Nolan agreed with her coach.
“At first, we weren’t playing up to our full potential, and that reflected in the midfield a lot, and the defense did a good job of getting it out and doing what they needed to do,” Nolan said. “Once the midfield and everyone else got involved, it settled down a bit and we were able to play our own game.”
The team’s best chance to get a goal came in the 44th minute, when junior defender Abigail Emmert ripped a shot from the top of the box over the net to close out the half.
With the team in need of a win or tie to ensure their top seed in the conference, the College’s habit of coming out hot during the second half continued. Only six minutes in, Emmert laced another shot.
Four shots were taken in the first 20 minutes of the second half — more than in the entire first — and the last one garnered a new result. Levering, the team’s top scorer this season, increased her total to 16 when she headed in a cross off of junior midfielder Jessica Goldman. The ball hopped over the Profs goalie and gave the Lions the lead, 1-0.
“Senior night means so much,” Levering said. “Everyone has done so much for us over the past couple of years. So to give back to this team as much as I can is the greatest feeling. Tonight definitely meant a lot.”
The Lions passed smoothly and juked past Profs left and right. Russo said that this dynamic change was much different than the performance he saw during the first half.
“I thought we did much better in the midfield,” Russo said. “Our team in the second half, was much better centrally.”
However, the defensive unit took a late hit when Scognamiglio was injured while stopping a Rowan advance.
While a senior defender limped off the field, a freshman who was already on it would seal the game for the Lions.
In the 81st minute, Nolan kicked a shot from the top right of the box off a pass from Sullivan. The ball slipped into the left side of the net and the Lions clinched the win, 2-0.
Nolan said she’s happy she was able to give back to the group who taught her and the rest of the team so much.
“It was a really good feeling, especially seeing all their faces afterwards come up to me,” Nolan said. “I just wanted to do it for them. It just felt so good knowing that I was helping them win their senior night.”
The team, using the first round bye to practice, will face Kean University in the NJAC semi-final on Wednesday, Nov. 5, at Lions Stadium. Kean is coming off beating Stockton University, 1-0, in a first round matchup and will look to avenge their 5-1 loss to the College from two weeks ago.
Levering said she hopes the team will continue to play the same way.
“As long as we have the right attitude going forward and believe we can do it, I think we just keep it the same,” Levering said.