WILLIAMSTOWN, MA --110 minutes is an awfully long time. On Saturday, however, 110 minutes proved insufficient when it came to deciding Saturday's heart-stopping NESCAC semifinal between Williams and Tufts in men's soccer.
Ultimately, it was the Williams' men's soccer team who prevailed over the Tufts Jumbos by a 4-2 count in a penalty kick shootout after the two teams played to a scoreless draw through regulation and overtime. The win placed the Ephs (13-0-3) in tomorrow's NESCAC championship game and allowed them to run their remarkable unbeaten streak to 16 games. The Jumbos fell to 9-3-4 with the loss.
"It's a terrible way to decide such a tight game," said Ephs coach Mike Russo afterward. "But it has to be this way."
The first half was a hotly-contested and tense period, although both teams appeared to lack some of the crispness that brought them to this point. In fact, neither team managed to record so much as a shot until the 18th minute, when Luke Booth got on the end of a Monil Patel corner kick and headed it harmlessly over the crossbar. The Ephs got their first shot in similar fashion about five minutes later, when Matt Ratajczak turned a long Williams cross into a lazy header on goal that goalkeeper Wyatt Zeller easily corralled.
Neither team had any great scoring chances in the first half, though the Jumbos held an edge in possession and earned five corner kicks (compared to none for the Ephs). However, they were thwarted on most every corner by Eph netminder Than Finan, who seemingly always found the right positioning to punch the ball out.
The second period proved to be a complete reversal of the first, as the opportunities came thick and fast for the Ephs. The onslaught began in the 55th minute, when Patrick Ebobisse made a knifing run into the 18-yard-box and slid the ball across the goalmouth for User Kushaina. The pass was cleared by a Jumbo defender, but it came right to the feet of Michael Madding, who fired a high, curling shot that a leaping Zeller just managed to deflect away with his fingertips. About eight minutes later, the Ebobisse-to-Kushaina connection clicked and freed the latter to launch a rocket on net that Zeller stopped but could not control. The rebound nearly fell to Peter Christman for an easy tap-in goal, but Christman overran the ball slightly and missed a golden opportunity.
With just under two minutes to go, Kushaina and Ebobisse once more combined for their best chance yet. Here, Kushaina sent a cross into the box for Ebobisse, who somehow managed to control the ball and turn in one smooth motion before firing a point-blank shot with the outside of his right foot that seemed destined to break the stalemate. Zeller, however, instinctively stuck his arm out and managed to deflect the ball away for a corner -- a brilliant if not miraculous save.
The Jumbos were not without their chances in the half. Both Pat Bauer in the 49th minute and Sam Williams in the 61st minute tested Finan with tough shots that seemed ticketed for the corners, but Finan proved up to the task on both occasions.
Once overtime began, Williams continued to monopolize possession, but it was the Jumbos who had the best chance with a little over two minutes remaining in the period. The play began innocuously enough, as a partial Williams clearance bounded out towards midfield. Tufts midfielder Rui Pinheiro suddenly launched with a long half-volley that evaded Finan completely before clanging hard off the bar and out of play.
That was the best chance for either team before the final horn sounded to signal the end of the second overtime, setting in motion one of the cruelest tiebreakers in all of sports.
Williams elected to shoot first and leaned on their captains, Ratajczak and Christman, both of whom finished their penalties with authority. Scott Blumenthal and Connor Schaible provided equalizers for the Jumbos, though Finan managed to get a piece of Schaible's shot but could not keep it out.
It was a sign of things to come.
After Matt Muralles blasted a shot into the top left corner for the Ephs, Finan responded by diving to his right to stop a low, hard attempt from Hoppenot, thus putting Williams in control. Zeller answered, however, with a remarkable diving save to his left on Andres Burbank-Crump to give his side a chance to equalize. Finan was not to be outdone, however, and managed to totally smother Ben Ewing's shot to end the fourth round and give his squad a chance to clinch the victory. Chris Seitz did just that, sending the Ephs' largest crowd of the season into a field-storming frenzy.
"Than is extremely capable at penalty stopping," said Russo. "He just has a knack for knowing which way the shooter will go."
The Jumbos now await the results of Monday's NCAA tournament selection to see if they can snag an at-large bid, while the Ephs will host archenemy Amherst at noon in Sunday's championship match.
"We're delighted to be able to go on and play tomorrow," said Russo. "We'll see what happens."
Ebobisse summed it up best:
"Finals on Cole Field. Doesn't get better than that."