By Michael Battista
The women’s soccer team — ranked No. 2 in the nation, according to United Soccer Coaches’ Division III rankings — won its 17th New Jersey Athletic Conference title on Friday, Nov. 3 when the team bea Montclair State University, 1-0. The team earned the chance to play against Montclair after they defeated Stockton University, 4-0, on Tuesday, Oct. 31, in the conference semi-finals.
With the victory in the NJAC tournament, head coach Joe Russo earned his 500th win. He is the second coach in Division III to do so and only the fourth to do so in the NCAA. With the results as head coach this year, he was also awarded the NJAC award for Coach of the Year earlier in the week.
During the Lions’ first offensive drive, a cross into the box saw senior midfielder Elizabeth Thoresen crash into Montclair freshman goalkeeper Phoebe Bledsoe. From there, both sides ensued in multiple tackles and shoves as the match continued.
Thoresen herself had issues during the match. Early in the second half, she nearly had a breakaway chance. After she tripped over herself in Montclair’s end, she quickly needed to divert the ball toward the corner in order to salvage any attempt. Her physical play also lead her to a yellow card in the 57th minute, one of the few disciplinary actions the team has received this season.
Fans from both teams were reaching closer to fever pitch as the game progressed, with the aggressive play style eliciting cries toward the referees for cards.
Senior forward Hannah Richman explained that Montclair’s aggression took adjustment to get used to.
“They’re super aggressive,” Richman said. “We’re tough but sometimes we lack that aggression. That high pressure was definitely a struggle for us but we handled it and got the win.”
The aggressive nature of the game kept the ball stuck in limbo in the center of Lions Stadium. Neither team could outmaneuver or break through the other long enough to put up a shot during the first 10 plus minutes. However, the College narrowly maintained possession for the majority of the time. The team’s best chance came in the 28th minute when defender Devon McDonough collected a pass on the left side. Her shot was just out of Bledsoe’s reach, but deflected off the crossbar and into waiting Montclair players.
While the College led Montclair in shots, 6-1, they also led in fouls, 8-5. Russo said his team needed to calm down and told them so during halftime.
“I thought we needed to catch out breath,” Russo said. “I thought the first half was played at a frenetic pace and in the second half I thought we played better. We played a little bit more.”
The Lions showed a different chemistry in the second half, with their first shot on goal of the second half coming after only three minutes. The slower pace allowed the team to dominate in their offensive playing.
The shift in offensive play paid off in the 69th minute, when senior midfielder Jessica Goldman burst past Montclair defenders on the left side of the field and crossed into the box toward a Richman. Despite Montclair’s goalkeeper being directly in front of her, she blasted the ball over the goal line to give her team the lead, 1-0.
“I was in tears after I scored,” Richman said. “I didn’t think it was real (and) there was still 20 minutes left.”
Goldman’s assist was the 27th of her career, tying for fourth most in College history.
The last minutes of play saw Montclair players go on a full blown counter-attack. Soon after the goal, sophomore midfielder Beatty earned a yellow card for a hard tackle while the Lions were in the Montclair’s zone. While the team was running low on time, it didn’t make careless mistakes.
With less than 10 minutes remaining, the Lions shifted from offensive moves to defensively killing time. Goldman said Montclair was constantly circling, trying to pick the ball away.
“They’re kicking at your ankles and you’re just trying to waste time and keep it in the corner,” Goldman said.
Once the final whistle blew, the Lions charged the field and embraced one another as conference champions. With the win, the team earned an automatic bid to the 2017 NCAA Division III women’s soccer tournament.
“It honestly hasn’t hit me yet,” Goldman said. “It’s surreal to be celebrating with the team after three years of losing in the (NJAC) final and finally pushing through to get this (conference champion) T-shirt and automatic bid. It feels great to be with this team that I love so much.”
The Lions performance this postseason has been astounding. Against Stockton, Nolan helped her team with a hat-trick in her first ever multi-score game. Senior forward Christine Levering, the newly crowned NJAC offensive player of the year, put up multiple assists and a goal to inch her closer to the all-time record holder in career goals for the Lions. The team’s progress has left them undefeated at 18-0.
The NCAA announced on Monday, Nov. 6, the 64 team bracket for the nation Division III women’s soccer tournament. The College will host four teams and three games during the first weekend, between Nov. 10 and Nov. 12, with the Lions taking on Roger Williams University at 11 a.m. and Tufts University will take on Virginia-Wesleyan College at 1:30 p.m.
Russo knows that while his team needs to prepare for the national tournament, they earned the right to celebrate their conference victory.
“I’m well aware that they’re going to enjoy tonight, and they should,” Russo said. “Deservingly so. But we’re back at work Sunday-Monday. It’s another six game tournament that we have to be involved with and see what we can do.”