December 3, 2016

Wash U. claims first title on PK shootout win

Cover photo credit: Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com

2016 D-III Women's Soccer Champion: Washington U.
Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com

Washington U. survived a double-overtime battle with Messiah to claim their first-ever women's national championship. The Bears were perfect in the penalty shootout after 110 minutes wasn't enough to determine a victor. Messiah was stronger in attack throughout the game, but they needed a late equalizer after Wash U. scored first against the run of play in the 72nd minute. For the Bears, the title comes on the heels of a runner-up finish last season. For Messiah, it's the second straight year being eliminated on penalty kicks by Wash U. after last year's semifinal ouster.

First Half

The game opened with good energy by both teams, each trying to establish an offensive presence without, of course, sacrificing anything defensively. However, neither team was able to find their rhythm and most of the play was in the midfield. It took eight minutes to see the game’s first shot: Messiah’s All-American forward, Marisa Weaver, got tripped up at the top left corner of the area and a poor clearance by the Bears came straight to Olivia Snare who took a crack at goal from a few steps outside the box that was comfortably scooped up at the left post by Lizzy Crist, one of Washington U.’s three NSCAA All-Americans. Washington U. would register their first shot a minute later: an effort that sailed well over the goal.

Opposite of their semifinal against Chicago, Messiah was creating spells of possession in their offensive half of the field instead of being limited to counter-attacks. But like the semifinal, quality looks were going to be rare as Washington U.’s 0.26 goals against average was second best in the nation. In the 13th minute, Weaver created separation from her mark outside the top right corner of the box and cutting into the area tried to curl a shot in by the near post. The shot stayed wide and typified the type of half-chances that Messiah would manage against the Bears defense, unable to really test Crist.

It was the start of a ten minute stretch in which Messiah really had Washington U. on their heels, and sandwiched between two more half-chance shots, was perhaps the most dangerous opportunity of the first half.  Weaver turned on her defender to reach the end line at the left edge of the 6-yard box and cut the ball back toward Sollenberger entering the 6-yard box, but Crist got a crucial hand to the ball to push it out of path of the Messiah forward and avert the danger.

In the 28th minute the offensive threat was finally at the other end of the field when Caroline Dempsey slotted a ball into the area for Katie Chandler, the Bears’ leading scorer, but Sara Yunez was quick to pounce on the ball just before the All-American forward could reach it. And as the first half entered the final quarter hour, Washington U. was having their best spell of possession, moving the balance of play out of their half and into the Messiah half of the field. In the 31st minute, the Bears had their best chance of the half to score when Mariana Alisio sent a high looping ball into the area from the right side that neither Megan Renken or the Messiah defenders were able to control and the ball fell to Jessica Kovach who volleyed it on the short-hop, but her shot blazed inches over the crossbar.

It would be the only chance to come of the Bears’ offensive pressure, and in the 38th minute it was the Falcons threatening again with Weaver squaring the ball to Kate Shults who decided to have a go from just above the arc, but she fired high. Four minutes later Brooke Firestone tried her luck as she carried the ball right to left along 18-yard line, but she wasn’t able to turn enough and her shot whizzed into the side-netting.

It was the last chance of the half and the sides entered the interval deadlocked and scoreless. Offensively, Messiah shone more brightly, successfully executing their short-passing game in a way that was rarely seen in their semifinal. Their confidence was evident, not least because of the occasional ill-advised passes into double-teams in their attacking third and the risky passes in tight spaces around midfield between their backs and midfielders. 

Washington U. was sure-footed defensively and using their physicality to disrupt the Falcons rhythm whenever possible with the referee being lenient and slow to his whistle. Offensively the Bears had some positive moments, but struggled to get Chandler, scorer of both their semifinal goals and scorer of the crucial equalizer against Messiah in last year’s semifinal, involved. She didn’t register a single shot, although if going strictly by the stat sheet, it could be pointed out that her counterpart, Weaver, only got off one shot for the Falcons. But Weaver was highly involved throughout, effectively combining with teammates after often being on her own on counter-attacks the night before when Messiah wasn’t able to establish much possession in their offensive half as they were tonight.

Second Half

Washington U. came out of the interval with renewed energy and effort and registered two shots in the first six minutes after only managing three in the entire first half. First, on another high looping cross from the right, Dempsey stretch around her defender to one-time the ball out of the air, but couldn’t place it anywhere near the frame. Forty-five seconds later Wash U. headed an attempted clearing ball by Messiah back the other way to the feet of Taylor Cohen just to the right of the arc and she took a strike but it deflected off her defender and wide of the target.

This boost in offense was facilitated by the Bears’ high pressure disrupting the Falcons’ build-up play out of the back which led to turnovers and play staying in the Messiah’s half of the field.  However, that halftime adjustment could only unsettle the Falcons for the opening eight minutes of the half after which they pinned the Bears in their own half for over six straight minutes before Wash U. finally had possession past midfield once again.

It was the classic Messiah short-passing game they are known for, sometimes stringing passes together for 30 to 60 seconds at a time.  Anytime Wash U. were able to win the ball, they couldn’t effectively clear the ball or find an outlet and Messiah would have possession again. Even three goal kicks couldn’t get play moved back into the Messiah half. However, for all that possession, the Falcons only had a corner kick and a long-range shot to show for it.

And as so often is the case in these situations, when Washington U. was final able to break out of the half and go on attack it almost resulted in the goal that Messiah seemed much more likely to produce. Cohen slipped past her defender down the right flank, centered the ball to Chandler near the penalty spot who one-touched it ahead to Darcy Cunningham 8 yards out. After two good touches with defenders closing in, Cunningham let rib from 6 yards, but Yunez coming off her line made a fantastic sliding block to keep the Bears off the scoreboard.

After the ensuing corner kick, Messiah cleared and went on the break with Weaver carrying the ball from 10 yards in her own half all the way into the box, and despite a wide open Sollenberger down the right channel she decided to pull the trigger from 12 yards out and her powerful shot went into Crist’s arms. Despite the dangerous counter they conceded, the Bears’ near-goal seemed to energize them and the game became a much more back-and-forth affair for the next ten minutes. However, outside of one dangerous moment created by the Falcons, the goalless stalemate was not threatened.

That is, until the 72nd minute. After stealing the ball and shaking her defender, Lexie Sprague served an enticing ball into the box from the right side. Cohen couldn’t quite connect when she rose to head the ball on goal, but the ball rebounded off her defender and bounced right back into her path and without breaking her stride she blasted the ball over Yunez, under the crossbar and into the top netting for the goal. Somewhat against the run of play, the Bears took full advantage of a Messiah miscue (a poor first touch playing the ball out the back) to win the ball and then a fortunate bounce in the box to draw first blood in a match where a single goal had a good chance of being enough.

With the 1-0 lead, Washington U. was in great position to claim the title as their defense, though conceding territory, wasn’t allowing Messiah good looks and a 19th shutout was looking probable. And the goal, much like their earlier near-goal, raised the Bears’ energy and they seemed to be playing with increased confidence. Messiah was unable to find a response as the clock ticked down toward ten minutes and their task got harder when Wash U. went with an extra defensive player to close the game out.

Then, just when another Messiah attack seemed to have come up empty, the Falcons struck before the Bears hardly knew what happened. With the ball about to cross the endline on the left side of the area and her defender in better position, Weaver slid to not only keep the ball in play but to send it to a momentarily unmarked Sollenberger left of the penalty spot. Half-facing away from goal, the overtime hero from the previous night smartly pushed the ball toward the arc and into the path of DJ Cole who smashed the ball but Megan Nicklay blocked it inside her 6-yard box only to see the ball rebound to the feet of Sollenberger who was able to slot the ball past Nicklay’s outstretched foot and into the back of the net for the equalizer before Crist could recover from diving to save Cole's initial blast.

With six and a half minutes remaining, Washington U. did not hang their heads in disappointment and within a minute of the restart Chandler server a ball into the box that nearly found the head of Renken at the edge of the 6-yard box. A few minutes later, a Chandler turn and shot from 20 yards out that went far off target was only noteworthy because it was her only shot of the night, a statistic that would not have been expected if the Bears were going to have a chance to win. And that chance was preserved in the final minute when Nicklay was in the right spot to intercept Shults’ centering pass from the left side of the area with Weaver in front of her marker on her near post run. 1-1 it would finish after 90 minutes.

Overtime

In the opening minutes of the first period of extra time, Messiah looked as unsteady as they had all night with a series of poor clearances and outlet passes to relieve the pressure allowing Washington U. to stay on attack for extended periods of time. But the Bears were unable to take advantage and didn’t create any danger despite much of the first five minutes being played in Messiah’s half. The Falcons finally created some offensive pressure of their own in the 6th minute of overtime and a Bears clearance came to Missy Beiner who unleashed a laser of a shot, but wide left.

The tide would turn in Messiah favor and in the 98th minute Shollenberger dribbled into the box, right of goal, and nearly shed two defenders, but lost her footing as she prepared to shoot. A minute later Weaver received the ball down the left channel and near the end line took a tough-angle shot, but on line to sneak in at the near post if Crist hadn’t been there to cover. Wash U.’s lone chance came with forty ticks left on the clock when goalkeeper Crist’s long free kick into the box was blocked on the short-hop on the edge of the 6-yard box but went to Cunningham inside the arc to one-time goalward, but right at Yunez.

The second overtime was largely uneventful with most of the play in Wash U.’s half.  Outside of a long-distance Messiah free kick that reached Crist, there were no shots taken as time dropped under two minutes with a penalty shootout beckoning. Finally Firestone broke the drought, dribbling left to right along the top of the Bears’ box before having a go, but she couldn’t get turned enough and her shot sliced wide right. One last Messiah chance with 30 seconds remaining called Crist into action when Shults’ glancing header off a low driven cross had the ball on course for the bottom left corner of the goal, but Crist smothered it with no room for error as Weaver was closing for a tap in.

Penalty Kick Shoutout

It’s a game of inches sometimes and so it would be in the shootout to determine the 2016 national champion. Besides a shot right down the middle by each side, only the Bears’ fourth kick was reasonably saveable.  However, Yunez guessed wrong on that shot, and the difference was Beiner’s shot off the underside of the crossbar that came down just inches off the goalline on Messiah’s second attempt. With the shootout tied at four with one kick remaining before sudden death, the celebrations for Washington U. started when Megan Wolf tucked her shot in by the right post.


The Falcons’ season closed with a 22-3-0 mark and heartbreak as they were ever-so-close to a sixth title. It’s now been four years without a championship for Messiah after claiming five in eight seasons. For Washington U., their first-ever championship campaign goes into the books with a 19-2-3 record. The Bears had been knocking on the door with runner-up finishes last year and in 2009 (to Messiah), with three Elite 8 finishes in the intervening years. It’s the second straight year that the previous season’s runner-up won the title, and the third straight year having a first-time champion.

Sunday, Nov. 19: All times Eastern
M:
12:00 PM
Rutgers-Camden at Lebanon Valley
Video Live stats
M:
1:00 PM
Rochester at Messiah
Video Live stats
M:
1:00 PM
Brandeis at Tufts
Live stats
M:
2:00 PM
St. Thomas at North Park
W:
12:00 PM
New York University at Springfield
Video Live stats
W:
1:00 PM
Johns Hopkins at Williams
Video Live stats
W:
1:00 PM
Ohio Northern at Hardin-Simmons
Video Live stats
W:
1:00 PM
Messiah at TCNJ
Sunday, Nov. 19: All times Eastern
M:
1:00 PM
Rochester at Messiah
Video Live stats
M:
1:00 PM
Brandeis at Tufts
Live stats
M:
2:00 PM
St. Thomas at North Park
Sunday, Nov. 19: All times Eastern
W:
1:00 PM
Johns Hopkins at Williams
Video Live stats
W:
1:00 PM
Ohio Northern at Hardin-Simmons
Video Live stats
W:
1:00 PM
Messiah at TCNJ