By Michael Battista
If there were ever a day for the College’s women’s soccer team to win, it was the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) Final on Saturday, Nov. 5.
Unfortunately, the College fell to Rowan University, 1-0, after an impressive showing against Kean University, 4-0, in the semi-final match on Wednesday, Nov. 2, both at Lions Stadium.
The Lions came into the tournament as the first seed in the conference, ranked fifth in the nation in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Coaches poll. Kean, coming off a win over Montclair University in the first round, looked to avenge its 5-1 loss to the College only a few weeks ago. However, it wasn’t meant to be.
As the game started at 5 p.m., the setting sun was in the peripheral vision of senior goalkeeper Jessica Weeder for the first half. The sunlight might have proved to be a challenge if Kean had the chance at a goal, however, the offensive squad didn’t let that happen.
In a complete shift from their last meeting, the Lions were the better team when it came to ball control early on in the game. The Cougars struggled to get any offensive push and could not take a single shot during the first half.
In the 27th minute, senior forward Christine Levering kicked the ball along the line as she took a cross from junior midfielder Kayla Bertolino and slipped it into the goal from the side of the net. She said coming into the game, the team needed to make an early statement.
“We played them before and we knew we didn’t play well in the first half (then),” Levering said. “We knew today we had to come out strong and have high energy.”
Throughout the half, they took 13 shots after multiple corner kick attempts and outmaneuvering the Cougar back line.
In the second, the Cougar’s floodgates broke completely as the Lions slammed in three goals. Freshman midfielder Alexa Beatty, positioned in front of the net, was able to adjust her body to angle in a cross from Levering to give the team the lead, 2-0, in the 54th minute.
In the 66th minute Levering got her head even more in the game as she headed in a corner kick from junior midfielder Jessica Goldman, her 18th of the year. The final blow came from freshman midfielder Haley Bodden, who headed in a chip pass from freshman midfielder Alexa Pestritto to give the Lions the win, 4-0.
For both Beatty and Pestritto, this was their first career collegiate playoff goals.
When asked about players like Goldman and junior midfielder Elizabeth Thoresen reaching the NJAC Final the previous two years only to lose, head coach Joe Russo said he didn’t believe that was a main focus for the team.
“We’re just trying to win the next game,” Russo said. “We have some experience and hopefully it pays off… We have a long way to go.”
The final was a rematch of last year’s contest, which saw the Profs beat the Lions, 2-1, in overtime to secure their second NJAC title. The last time the teams met on Wednesday, Oct. 26, the College secured the top seed in the conference with a win, 2-0.
This time the tables were turned, as the Profs struck quick and played hard defense the entire game. Sophomore Prof defender Maddie Williscroft was able to head in a corner kick attempt in the 4th minute of play in what was Rowan’s only shot on goal for the next 34 minutes.
The Lions had 18 shots all game, with 10 coming in the first half, but Rowan’s “iron wall” defense, as the Rowan radio announcers called it, kept the Lions back, forcing them to take longer shots that Prof goalie, sophomore Shelby Money, stopped with ease.
Money said she rallied around not only her teammates, but the large Prof section of fans making up the 379 at the game.
“It was difficult,” Money said. “But with the fans here and with my teammates supporting me in goal whenever I made a nice save they would cheer me on and that would build up my confidence. Being able to come out and get the crosses or the corner kicks and being able to keep going and keep being physical, it’s just huge.”
The College was unable to rally around the pack of Lions in the stands, as the defensive efforts of the Profs seemed to stop their rallies throughout the game despite holding the ball for the majority of it.
The game became more aggressive as time went on, ensuring physical play from both sides which kept the ball moving. Goldman said this switch away from the team’s style of play is what hurt them the most.
“We kind of played ‘kick and run’ and more in the air and aggressive like (Rowan) plays,” Goldman said. “So we weren’t playing to our strengths. I think that was the difference.”
While also giving credit to the Rowan team, especially the goalkeeping, coach Russo agreed with that statement.
“I agree with (Goldman) 100 percent,” Russo said. “I don’t think we played the style that we’re capable of playing… We did not play our usual possession style of soccer.”
Levering gave her team one of the best chances of the half with a bullet shot off a juke around a defender that Money saved for the Profs.
The second half was a repeat of the first, minus any goals from both sides. It was around this half where the game started to get more out of hand for the Lions as the physicality, inability to get around the Profs and constant pressure from a ready Rowan offense took its toll.
Two times Money was hit in the box by Lions players without a whistle being blown, much to the ire of the Rowan fans. She said this style of play comes naturally to her.
“I’ve always had to deal with stuff like that,” Money said. “As I was growing up, I grew up with a lot of boys in the family so I’ve always had to be aggressive… That goes into goalkeeping and I know there’s going to be teams like TCNJ that are gonna body up the goalkeeper… So I have to make sure that my head’s on straight.”
The 81st minute saw Goldman take a nasty fall during a play with a Prof, which lead to a moment of frustration with the official giving her a yellow card.
“I was getting frustrated ’cause I was getting fouled a lot and I just lost it for a second,” Goldman said. “I guess it was a bad foul and he gave me a yellow card.”
The Lions final chance came with just over seven minutes to go, when senior midfielder Marissa Scognamiglio headed a ball towards the net from ten yards out. But a diving stop from Money kept the game from tying late.
The game ended shortly after, with Rowan University winning their third NJAC title and their second in as many years.
While disappointed in the result, the season isn’t over for the pack just yet. The team has qualified for the NCAA tournament for a 25th consecutive time as the top-ranked team in the South Atlantic region and will be facing the Marywood University Pacers on Saturday Nov. 12 at Lions Stadium. Coach Russo knows this, and says the team needs to regroup if they want to succeed.
“There’s still a lot of soccer for us to play,” Russo said. “We just picked a bad time to not be at our best. We have to get to playing the way we’re capable of playing moving forwards.”