December 4, 2010

Inside the women's semifinals

Sarah Stansell

Sarah Stansell's shot sent Hardin-Simmons into the national championship game for the first time in the school's NCAA history in any sport.
Photo by Ryan Coleman,

In the women's Final Four matchups, the undefeated teams of Hardin-Simmons and Otterbein played to a stalemate, whereby Hardin-Simmons advanced in penalties, and Messiah used a strong second half to deal William Smith a 4-0 loss.

Without a doubt, the Messiah-William Smith match may have possibly been the best display of talent in women's soccer this campaign, and while Messiah ran rampant on the scoreboard, the game was much more than a simple annihilation. Contrary to assumptions, it was William Smith who grabbed the game by the throat and established early control.

Using a high-pressure defense and quick-passing style of play, William Smith immediately shut down all chances of Messiah engaging in its sleek passing game, and created major headaches for Messiah's defense early on. The entire Messiah team seemed all at sea, as they were unable to generate any offense, and were forced to clear routine balls from the back due to William Smith's pressure, and the threat of All-American Brelynn Nasypanny.

Messiah coach Scott Frey said: "We were unable to touch the ball in the first five minutes. They did a great job of disrupting our play." Chelsea England described their tactics as, "just trying to attack, with an obvious benefit. But we were also trying to keep them out of their game." But William Smith was unable to cause any serious damage, and actually forced Messiah into a quicker tempo that eventually benefited the holders.

If any women's team thrives off of high energy, quick passing, and windy off-ball runs, it's Messiah. Five minutes into the match and Messiah was in control. Senior Joanna Haqq, sophomore Corinne Wulf, and sophomore Rachel Scheibler soon found themselves open on the flanks, and available for long through balls, and with Brandt and Sipe as the suppliers, their space soon became the undoing of William Smith. Brandt, Scheibler and Wulf began connecting one touch passes from the center to the flank and back to the center to devastating effect, and it soon paid dividends.

Just before the ten-minute mark, Brandt nearly fed Wulf a perfect through ball, only for William Smith keeper Amanda Davis to cut out the threat. Some more brilliant runs from Wulf and Scheibler nearly put them in scoring position again, but it was Alex Brandt who finally broke the deadlock in the 15th minute. Scheibler played a ball inside the box with Brandt eventually controlling. She diced her defender and smashed her shot to the near post, beating Davisfor an emphatic 1-nil lead.

Sipe nearly created another immediately after with a ball to Scheibler, but was cut out by William Smith's highly organized defense. Rather than using this momentum to stamp their name on the match, Messiah found itself in trouble time and time again as their defense was still unable to handle William Smith's pressure. A poor pass to Messiah's Katie Hoffsmith saw England strip her of possession and feed Nayspanny whose subsequent rocket was barely saved by the fingertips of keeper Autumn Reilly.

William Smith amplified its work rate, and Messiah's usually calm defenders looked more and more nervous the more pressure to which they were subjected. William Smith began to create more chances with long, beautiful passing sequences between Katie Redmond, England on the flank, and Nasypanny, but was unable to unleash a shot strong enough to beat Reilly. For the next 20 minutes, the match was back and forth, end to end. However, with the introduction of key Messiah substitutes Olivia Scott, Lisa Wingard, and Alicia Frey, Messiah began to find an edge with fresh legs, and eventually substitute Emily Schneider kept much of William Smith's attack at bay with her penetrating runs, and skill on the ball for the remainder of the half.

Senior Amanda Naeher had a goal in the Messiah win on Friday.
Photo by Messiah athletics

Following the break, it was evident that William Smith had yet to endure fatigue, and came out in its emphatic style, pressing hard for the vital equalizer. But Messiah's leading goal scorer Amanda Naeher emerged from her lackluster self from the first half to wreak havoc on William Smith's defense and dash all hopes of victory. Wulf began to connect well with Naeher, who found more time on the ball than she did her first half. With that possession, she was able to utilize her creativity and power. Put her prowess with Messiah's blitz-speed, and one has an equation for disaster, for Messiah came out much stronger and faster in the second half, and Naeher was on target.

After several good chances created by Haqq, Naeher received a ball 20 yards out in front of goal. Turning her defender, she blazed past the other defending her and slid home her team's second. "It felt like, more than anything, [the goal] opened the game up, and allowed [Rogers] to get the others," Naeher said.

Haqq found more space on the left side, and proceeded to inflict major pain on anyone trying to stop her. Frey admitted, "she's very talented and can use her talent when she's given the space." Haqq used it brilliantly, making runs and beating defenders to the sidelines for dangerous back-passes into William Smith's box. While more attention had to be shifted wide, Brandt was then, on rare occasions, more space and time with the ball, which also proved detrimental to William Smith's chances.

But that didn't stop William Smith from constantly threatening Messiah's defense. Anytime Nasypanny received the ball, Messiah found itself in trouble, but did well to not let her unleash her shots. Kate Redmond also created some chances, but all in all, Messiah's possession game truly took its toll on their opponents. Out-possessing William Smith for large portions of the latter stages of the match, Messiah was able to spread the field, and find players making penetrating runs. In the 76th minute, Rachel Scheibler attacked William Smith's backline with pace after getting behind the midfield. Once pressured, she dished a quick pass to a sprinting Ali Rogers. Rogers took the ball to the end line, cut back leaving her defender in her wake, and fired a shot into the top of the goal for a 3-0 lead. Even with the chances of a win nearly eradicated, William Smith still pushed hard to break down Messiah's defense. But the more they pushed, the more space they created, and late in the 85th minute, Lisa Wingard played a brilliant ball into Rachel Loya 16 yards out, who turned and fed Ali Rogers on top of the 18-yard box. Rogers faked a shot, cut her defender and fired home to complete her brace, and the 4-0 scoreline.

They set themselves up with a Hardin-Simmons team which mirrors much of their success this term. Junior midfielder Kelsey Gorman said, "It's exciting. It makes us anxious. . . not a nervous anxious, but excited anxious."

Despite her team’s loss, William Smith coach Aliceann Wilber is "very proud." And the girls will most-likely be back next year.

Undefeated Hardin-Simmons needed a bit of providence in its semifinal match with  undefeated Otterbein. After two scoreless halves and two scoreless periods of extra time, Hardin-Simmons reached the championship match via a penalty shoot-out. Hardin-Simmons came flying out of the gates and nearly grabbed an early goal from a Miranda Bersosa cross, but Otterbein quickly began its process of shutting down the nation's most potent team in front of goal. But for Otterbein has done it to good teams time after time. 'Keeper Tara Carter immediately demonstrated why she's one of the best, collecting loose balls, shutting down crosses and coming up with vital saves, while the denfensive unit of Rachel Degen, Laura Vasbinder, and Alyssa Hale organized their ranks, and stifled any true threat of the prolific Amy and Katie Kuykendall.

However, with 23 minutes on the clock, Hardin-Simmons used its creativity and speed to create chances, and break down Otterbein's defense. A string of perfect passes ended up with an Amy Kuykendall cross inside, where Megan Ryan met it with a one-time shot. Carter came up big, and Otterbein remained in the match. Megan Ryan was on the receiving end of a Katie Kuykendall pass, this time firing wide. A great effort from Amy Kuykendall was saved in the 36th minute, and Hardin-Simmons began to take control.

That was until Otterbein began to maintain possession, keeping their defensive structure. They nearly broke the deadlock themselves late in the first half with a curling corner, but despite a dropped ball in the box, not Otterbein players could seriously contest. Just as the match started to swing in Otterbein's favor, Amy Kuykendall finished a great build-up with a burst of speed through the heart of Otterbein's defense, only to shoot at an oncoming Carter in the 43rd minute.

While Hardin-Simmons claimed the better of chances in the first half, Otterbein practically claimed the entire second half for itself. "We knew we had to adjust to their outside mids, come out defending hard, and use that energy," Rachel Denz said, describing Otterbein's attitude entering the second half.

"They were just winning the battles. We never got a hold of the ball," stressed Hardin-Simmons coach Marcus Wood.

Jessica Yaney, Ali Novak, and especially Lindsey Rudibaugh began to pose a serious threat to Hardin-Simmons dreams of a championship, with Hardin-Simmons 'keeper Rebecca Roth having to come up with some brilliant saves to keep her team in the game. Rudibaugh had a great chance early on, cutting to the center of the box, but her shot was too weak. She then created a 1 on 1, but couldn't release her shot in time. Hardin-Simmons was able to respond with some chances of their own, but all were shots from tight angles and hopeful crosses. Rachel Denz found herself in scoring position, but she too shot directly at Roth. In the 81st, Hardin-Simmons countered with speed and found Bersosa wide open, but her lazer steered just wide of the goal to conclude their best chance of the second half. An 86 minute screamer from deep range from Rudibaugh nearly sealed-the-deal for Otterbein, but a great save from Roth again enabled Hardin-Simmons to fight on.

As the second half belonged to Otterbein, both overtime periods were undoubtedly dominated by Hardin-Simmons. With pace and quick passing, Hardin-Simmons immediately began looking for the winner, but despite chances from Bersosa and Amy Kuykendall,the match fell to penalties. In regards to their chances, Amy Kuykendally stressed, "We knew it was a tough game, but we thought one of those would go in." In the first round, both Knox and Amy Kuykendall converted, but in the second round, Hardin-Simmons went up, as Alyssa Hale couldn't steady her nerves, and Rebecca Gault scored. In the third, both Tara Smith and Katie Kuykendall converted, but in the fourth, both Vasbinder and Carly Powers blanked. All it took was a Sarah Stansell conversion, and her shot sent Hardin-Simmons to their school's first NCAA championship in any sport in school history.

"This means everything to me," said an ecstatic Stansell after knowing it was her strike that booked her teams place in tomorrow's championship, but to Roth who's looking ahead for Saturday’s match against Messiah, "the win hasn't sunk in yet."

Wood accredited part of the win to his team's practice in penalties, saying, "we prepared a month and a half for these. We became better and better." About the win, he said, "It's a dream."

Despite the loss, coach Brandon Koons said, "This is the best I've seen the Otterbein team play. ... I tell the girls, the longer [the game] goes, they crack. . . [Hardin-Simmons] didn't crack."

As for Bersosa and Roth, they're excited, not nervous, for the chance to play Messiah Saturday's championship. "They are a good team, but we are more than capable of playing with them," said a confident Bersosa. Roth was more blunt in her desire to oust the best, saying, "We have a higher respect for Messiah, they've earned it. But we wanted them all along, and we will make the best of it."

Jim Matson, Christan Shirk, Ryan Harmanis, and other staff writers and contributors help cover the games and results across the nation.

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