By Michael Battista
The women’s soccer team is heading to the NCAA Tournament semifinals for the 12th time in the program’s history.
The Lions beat Lynchburg College, 5-0, on Saturday, Nov. 18 and then advanced in penalty kicks in a 1-1 draw with Messiah College on Sunday, Nov. 19. The team is in the hunt for the program’s fourth-ever national title, and its first since 2000.
Lynchburg was stung early when senior midfielder Jessica Goldman sent a through ball in between two Lynchburg defenders to senior forward Christine Levering. Levering pushed forward and beat the advancing goalkeeper with a low shot to the right, putting the College up by one after three minutes.
On the play, Goldman got her 30th assist for the Lions, tying her for third all-time with alumna Gia Rosamilia (’02). Though Goldman was not aware of the accomplishment until after the game, she was glad it came at a critical time.
“Any assist is special,” Goldman said. “I was just so happy (about) that first assist. I looked up and saw (Levering) and it was a good ball through the backline. But it makes it special that it was in this game to get us to the Elite Eight.”
The early game continued to be generous to the home side. In the seventh minute, senior midfielder Kayla Bertolino crossed the ball into Lynchburg’s box. Lynchburg junior goalkeeper Delia LoSapio then punched the ball out. Finding the ball, freshman midfielder Kelly Carolan caught LoSapio out of place and shot the ball low to extend her team’s lead, 2-0.
The two schools, both named in the top 20 in the United Soccer Coaches’ Division III poll from Nov. 7, impressed during the first half. The Lions maintained possession for a majority of the time and took far more shots, but Lynchburg’s control and defense kept the game in high gear through 45 minutes.
As the clouds turned darker above, so did the atmosphere in the Soccer Complex as the physicality picked up. There were two hard plays in Lynchburg’s box in the first half, which sent players to the ground and spectators to their feet.
“You could hear the parents in the stands and the coaches all screaming … you kind of have to block it out,” Goldman said. “I might have thought some calls were incorrect or some were (correct), but you just have to block it out. You can’t even think about that.”
Head coach Joe Russo believes the game was called consistently. The increase in physicality, however, was difficult for both his team and the officials.
“There’s no sense in worrying about stuff you can’t control and we have no control over that,” Russo said. “I thought for the most part he was good and consistent but it’s hard. It became very physical as a game, so it makes it difficult for him.”
The physicality continued into the second half. While sophomore goalkeeper Nicole DiPasquale was trying to make a save, the opponent ran into her. While she was down, Lynchburg failed to convert a shot and DiPasquale returned to her feet shortly after.
The team benefits from a technical and controlled style, and while they were challenged, the outcome wasn’t negative, according to Russo.
“When we play our style and we’re finding feet and connecting, that we can create a lot of dangerous chances,” Russo said. “In the second half, it’s funny. We didn’t play as well, we just scored goals. We were very opportunistic and fortunate.”
The team’s fortune peaked during a four minute span in the second half and began with sophomore defender Jen McGrogan. In the 76th minute, after a foul by Lynchburg awarded the Lions a set piece 30 yards from the net, McGrogan lobbed a ball just above LoSapio’s hands and under the crossbar for her first goal of the season.
McGrogan wasn’t expecting to score, but was happy to be part of such a crucial moment.
“I think getting that third goal was crucial and I was so honored to be part of that,” McGrogan said. “Joy just overwhelmed my body and I couldn’t wait to go celebrate with my team.”
Despite an offensive push from Lynchburg late in the second half, senior forward Hannah Richman led the Lions to their clinching victory with two goals in the 79th and 80th minutes, both assisted by senior midfielder Elizabeth Thoresen.
Meanwhile at the other side of the bracket, the Lions next opponent, Messiah College, advanced by beating Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 5-0, on Saturday. In the Elite Eight matchup, both teams fought against a common opponent, the wind. From regulation to penalty shots, every stage of the game was affected by strong gusts, adding another element of unpredictability.
Both teams struggled throughout the match to make it to penalty kicks.
“We were just trying to survive,” Russo said. “It was difficult to play. You could tell that we weren’t very sharp, we weren’t clearing balls well. Tried to weather the storm, tried to keep possession … but for the most part we just survived.”
The Lions offense struggled early on and the wind pushed DiPasquale and the backline thin. Both sides recorded four shots each in the first half, with Messiah getting two shots in two minutes. The second shot was saved by DiPasquale.
Messiah broke through in the 25th minute off a corner kick. Messiah’s senior defender Lydia Eichorn headed in the corner kick from senior defender Skylar Ulry, and the Lions failed to shoot for the remaining 20 minutes.
“The biggest challenge is timing it,” DiPasquale said. “I have to make sure I’m reading the ball right and the spin and everything. Unfortunately on the first goal that was misread on my part.”
Messiah’s fast backline, pressing offense and rough play gave the Lions few scoring opportunities. Senior defender Kelly Wieczerzak was able to nail a cross into the Messiah box in the 44th minute, when freshman midfielder Faith Eichenour charged in and nearly made contact for a shot.
In the second half, with the wind behind them, the Lions outshot the Falcons 12-3, and received the majority of the corner kicks and set pieces as well. Goldman stepped up in the 60th minute and her cross deflected off of players in the box and found its way into the net.
“Coach (Turner) actually told me to take a look at it and see if I could get it in goal,” Goldman said. “And to be truthfully honest I thought ‘OK, that’s really hard.’ I aimed for the six because the wind was blowing that hard.”
The Lions continued to push and dominated the game. Despite two shots from Messiah getting past a diving DiPasquale and hitting the post, the Lions offense pressed. In one instance, the College was a few inches away from taking the lead when a loose ball sat just outside of the net following a shot attempt before Messiah quickly kicked it away.
Neither side could come up with another result in regulation. After two tense overtime periods, both teams lined up for penalty kicks going with the wind.
DiPasquale saved two of the three shots she faced. She even got hands on the third shot but the momentum mixed with the wind and pushed the loose ball into the net. A trio of seniors, Levering, Thoresen and Kayla Bertolino, all made their shots. The game winning goal sat at the feet of sophomore midfielder Haley Bodden.
When the ball crossed the goalline, the Soccer Complex exploded with cheers as the Lions punched their ticket to the Final Four. The team will face Chicago University on Friday, Dec. 1 at the University of North Carolina Greensboro Soccer Stadium in Greensboro, North Carolina, at 11 a.m. Chicago University is the No. 4 ranked team in the nation and co-champions of the University Athletic Association. The other remaining teams are Hardin-Simmons University and Williams College, who will play at 1:30 pm.
Russo credits everything to his staff, the players and all the work they’ve put in this year, but he knows the challenge that’s ahead.
“It’s always an exciting time to be thought of as one of the last four teams in the country still playing,” Russo said.
Here is Lions Television’s coverage of the NCAA matches.