Saving grace: Clarke shutouts extend season

The women’s soccer team proved they were worthy of their at-large bid to the NCAA Division III tournament, using excellent defensive play and a series of crucial late scores to down a pair of opponents over the weekend and advance to the round of sixteen.

Junior goalkeeper Jessica Clarke snared 14 saves over the two games, putting her team in position to capitalize on her stellar play.

And that’s just what they did.

Mere moments into the second overtime of Saturday’s opening-round matchup with Moravian College, senior forward Jamie Kunkel fed a pass to senior midfielder Coleen Weber. Weber booted the ball into the back of the net, extending the Lions’ season for at least one more day.

“In the past week as a team we have talked about how receiving an at-large bid to the tournament was such a great opportunity to prove to the whole country that – despite our record (14-6-1) – we are still a force to be reckoned with,” Weber said. “The goal itself made me feel proud that as a team we were finally beginning to execute the way we have wanted to all season – and at just the right time.”

Shots-on-goal were key again for the Lions, as they denied the Greyhounds a single crack at Clarke in the two extra periods. The Lions only had two scoring chances in the first overtime themselves, but Weber’s blast was all they needed in the second overtime to earn the win.

“Our defense was very strong this weekend. The four backs, and the people who came in those positions completely shut down the other team,” Kunkel said. “The opportunities that they did get, Jess made amazing saves on. It was a great defensive effort from the front to the back.”

Sunday’s win was slightly less stressful as the Lions used a dominant second half to drop the Western Connecticut State University Colonials 3-0. Weber and Kunkel traded places, but both still had a hand in the winning score.

This time Weber attacked the defense early in the second half, sneaking a crossing pass to Kunkel. The senior lifted a ball over the Colonials’ senior keeper Shannon Cawley to put the Lions up 1-0.

Senior forward Jillian Casey padded the lead with 20 minutes to go, capitalizing on a mad scramble in front of the net. Cawley tried to handle a Lions corner kick, but the ball was tipped away from her. Casey tracked down the loose ball and split two Colonial defenders to extend the Lions lead to 2-0.

Freshman forward Annie McCarthy joined the fun with 58 seconds to go in the contest. The rookie robbed the ball at the top of the penalty box and maneuvered around a defender, firing a shot into the top right corner of the net to ice the victory.

The Lions could also take delight in defeat over the weekend, as rival Rowan University fell 2-1 at the hands of Eastern University on Sunday. That makes the Lions the only surviving New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) squad in the tournament, despite their semifinal loss against Rowan two weeks ago.

“To be honest, there were some smiles,” Kunkel said of the reaction to Rowan’s loss. “When we lost to them, we thought our season was over, and our chances of a bid taken away. It’s ironic that we are the only NJAC tam left in the tournament. But we definitely deserve to be here.”

A tough test lies ahead, as the Lions visit undefeated Williams University (17-0-1) this weekend in a sectional semifinal.

Weber says her squad won’t be intimidated by their opponents’ perfect mark.

“I think we are going to approach this game like we did this past weekend. We know that the most important factor that will affect the game result is how we play as a team, not the other team’s record, goals scored, etc,” Weber said. “Throughout the year we have learned over and over again that the most important factor in a game is not who is supposed to be better than who, but which team has the most desire to win.”

James Queally can be reached at queally2@tcnj.edu.