WILLIAMSTOWN, MA--Throughout the 2012 season, the Williams and Amherst men's soccer teams shadowed one another in a mesmerizing battle for supremacy. They beat the same teams. They tied the same teams (including each other). And they lost to no one.
Eventually, something had to give.
A lightning-quick start and strong defensive play proved to be the difference in Sunday's NESCAC championship, as Amherst utilized both to defeat Williams by a final score of 2-0. The Lord Jeffs (15-0-2) ran their season-long unbeaten streak to 17 games with the win, while the Ephs (13-1-3) suffered their first loss of 2012.
When these two teams met during the regular season, 110 minutes was not enough for either team to find a goal; today, it took the Lord Jeffs less than 75 seconds to find the back of the net. A bout of high pressure right off the opening kickoff left the ball at the feet of senior midfielder Chris Lerner from about 25 yards out. Lerner sent an inswinging cross into the box with his right foot, where Jae Heo used his head to apply a brilliantly delicate redirection past Eph keeper Than Finan and into the side netting sending the already-energized Amherst bench into a euphoric frenzy.
"I think we were a little bit asleep at the beginning," said Williams coach Mike Russo.
Having claimed the momentum, the Lord Jeffs proceeded to dominate the discombobulated Ephs for most of the period and doubled their lead scarcely a quarter of an hour into the half. Once again, it was Lerner who started the play, this time with one of his signature long throws into the 18-yard-box. Gabriel Wirz used the whole of 6'4" frame to gain position and nod the ball down James Mooney, who ripped a rising shot over Finan's head and into the roof of the net for a 2-0 Amherst advantage.
"They're very athletic," said Russo in describing the Lord-Jeff's high-powered offense that has averaged over three goals per game. "They have a direct style of play and it's very effective."
The Jeffs had other chances to extend their advantage, but the Ephs defense stiffened and kept the deficit from becoming insurmountable even as the Williams offense sputtered and failed to record a shot on goal in the half. In the 18th minute, Heo and Brendan Caslin worked a beautiful give-and-go off a short corner kick that left Heo free to shoot from a sharp angle from the left side. This time, however, Finan was able to make the stop on the low shot.
To their credit, the Ephs refused to go quietly and began to press forward on offense in the second half, especially after Amherst, intent on protecting its lead, switched to a more conservative 4-5-1 scheme. Still, Williams did not manage to test goalie Thomas Bull until the 66th minute, when striker Mohammed Rashid rifled a free kick net and forced Bull to move to his right to make the save.
Five minutes later, the Ephs came knocking again when User Kushaina got hold of a loose ball and sent a high cross for Timothy Marchese, who headed the ball on frame but straight into the arms of Bull. Kushaina took a shot of his own from the right flank after another few minutes had gone by, but Bull smothered that too after a momentary bobble.
While the Lord Jeffs did not control play as they had in the first half and indeed were on their heels for much of the half, they still managed to create plenty of quality scoring opportunities. The best of these came in the 78th minute, when Finan made a tough save on a Max Fikke shot from close range; on the ensuing Milton Rico corner, James Mooney beat Finan to the ball and sent a looping header off the crossbar before the Ephs could clear it out of danger.
As the clock wound down, the Ephs pressed forward for one more desperate attack and came agonizingly close to finding an equalizer when a diving Matt Kastner connected with a Troy Ritter cross and sent a header towards the far post that Bull just managed to steer out for a corner.
"In the last 15 to 20 minutes, they went into a little bit of a shell and we created some very good opportunities. The keeper made a great save on Kastner."
The final horn sounded three minutes later, and Amherst players and coaches jubilantly poured onto the field to celebrate their second consecutive NESCAC championship while a dejected Eph squad quietly watched from the sideline.
Both teams now await the results of Monday's NCAA tournament selection, which will be announced tomorrow afternoon at 1 P.M. The Lord Jeffs, ranked fourth nationally, receive an automatic bid thanks to today's win, while the Ephs, ranked ninth nationally, hope for an at-large bid. Coverage of the event can be found here.