WILLIAMSTOWN, MA--On a day dedicated to them, the four Williams seniors wasted little time in reminding everyone just why they were worthy of a pregame ceremony.
As has so often been the case these last four years, Peter Christman and Patrick Ebobisse wreaked havoc on offense, Than Finan was solid in goal and Matt Ratajczak quarterbacked the defense and kick-started the offense.
Their efforts helped push the Williams men's soccer team to a season-ending 3-1 victory over Middlebury on a Wednesday afternoon at Cole Field. With the win, the Ephs (12-0-2, 8-0-2 NESCAC) secured their sixth undefeated regular season under head coach Mike Russo and their first since 2000. In losing, the Panthers fell to 6-6-1 (3-6-1 NESCAC) and locked up one of the bottom two seeds in the NESCAC playoffs.
"Our seniors have been one of the reasons we've done so well," said Russo afterward. "Their leadership has been outstanding, and it's really almost as if we have four captains [rather than two]. They're always saying and doing the right thing both on and off the field."
Williams attacked right from the opening whistle, and their aggressiveness nearly paid early dividends. Seconds into the game, Ebobisse nearly helped put the Ephs on the board when he made a strong run down the right sideline and sent a clever cross into the box that narrowly eluded everyone and rolled wide. 20 minutes later, it was again Ebobisse who almost created a goal when he sprang Matt Muralles free inside the 18-yard-box. Muralles' shot was on target, but a charging Zach Abdu-Glass successfully cut down the angle and made a sprawling kick save to keep the Ephs off the board.
Williams continued to press, however, and in the 27th minute they finally broke through. A stretch of consistent Eph possession ultimately left fullback Chris Seitz with the ball at his feet and some space to work with. Seitz instead chose to send a curling cross into the box from about 25 yards out, where it was met by none other than the head of Ratajczak, who nodded the ball past a diving Abdu-Glass and into the side netting for his second goal of the year and a 1-0 Williams lead.
Chances were few and far between for the Panthers in the first half, although they nearly knotted things up in the 37th minute when Jon Portman hit a rising shot from long range that Eph keeper Than Finan just barely managed to tip away for a corner kick.
The first fifteen minutes of the second half were largely uneventful as both teams seemed to settle into an odd staccato rhythm of clever ball movement and careless errors that seemed destined to make the 1-0 score stand up. Then, like a lightning bolt out of the grey sky that presided over Wednesday's contest, everything changed.
In the game's 61st minute, Middlebury's Adam Batista made a run deep into Williams territory and sent a low cross into the box, where an oncoming Harper Williams volleyed it into the back of the net for his third goal of the season and a most sudden tie.
The goal was the first that the Ephs had conceded at home all season, and it seemed to serve as a wakeup call for them. A mad rush up the field off the post-goal restart led to a free kick near the corner flag for the Ephs, and Ebobisse's quick cross on the ground was tapped in by Mohammed Rashid for the apparent go-ahead goal. However, referee Ed Shea immediately ruled that Abdu-Glass had possession of the ball before Rashid could get a foot on it and waved off the goal.
Although the call was hotly disputed by the Ephs bench, it became a moot point moments later when User Kushaina took matters into his own hands. After collecting a loose ball in the top corner of the 18 on the left side, Kushaina calmly cut back towards the middle and took one, two, three touches before unleashing a rocket that beat Abdu-Glass on the far post in the 63rd minute to become the first Eph to reach four goals on the year.
Just over a quarter of an hour later, Rashid became the second Eph to score four. After controlling a long ball from Michael Madding, Rashid shot and was denied by Abdu-Glass. But the Panther goalie could not prevent a rebound, which Rashid easily put away in the game's 80th minute.
Afterwards, Russo praised his team's response to adversity.
"Even though Middlebury tied it, we had a confidence and a belief that's been present all year," said Russo.
Both teams now look forward to the first round of the NESCAC playoffs on Saturday afternoon at noon. The Ephs will host either the Panthers or Connecticut College, while Middlebury will travel to either Williamstown or Amherst depending on the outcome of a coin flip that will determine playoff seedings for Williams and Amherst. The coin toss is expected to take place later this evening.
"It's always harder the second time around," said Russo when asked about the possibility of playing Middlebury again. "They're a good team."
UPDATE: The Ephs have won the coin toss and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Click here for full details.