Men's Soccer Makes Run At NESCAC Title

November 2, 2011

Top-seeded Amherst College will look to earn the program's second conference crown this weekend when the Lord Jeffs host the remaining rounds of the 2011 NESCAC Men's Soccer Championship at Hitchcock Field in Amherst, Mass. Action gets underway Saturday, Nov. 5 at 11:00 a.m. when fourth-seeded Williams faces third-seeded Trinity in the first semifinal followed by Amherst taking on defending NESCAC champion Middlebury, the tournament's seventh seed, at 1:30 p.m. Winners from Saturday will meet on Sunday at 12:00 p.m. for the 2011 NESCAC title.

Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, Amherst (12-1-2, 7-1-2 NESCAC) sat atop the conference standings tied with Wesleyan, as both team owned 7-0-1 league records and were unbeaten overall entering their showdown on Oct. 22. The winner of the match would secure the number-one seed in this year's tournament, however their scoreless draw meant that it would come down to the final games of the regular season on Oct. 26 to determine who would get the number-one seed. The Cardinals and the Jeffs both suffered setbacks in their season finales and finished with identical 7-1-2 marks, but the number-one seed went to Amherst due to a better record against the top four teams in the conference standings - 1-0-2 versus 1-1-1 for Wesleyan.

The split may have been the difference between advancing to the semifinals and being sent home early from the tournament. Amherst ended up facing eighth-seeded Colby (3-6-1 NESCAC) and dispatched the Mules by a 4-0 score. Wesleyan got defending champ Middlebury (3-3-4 NESCAC), and the seventh-seeded Panthers recovered from an early 1-0 deficit to win 3-2. Middlebury's win not only maintained the Panthers' streak as the only team to reach the semifinals every year the tournament has been held, it also gave 27th-year head coach David Saward his 300th victory.

While Middlebury may be second to Williams in the number of all-time NESCAC titles by a 6-to-3 margin, the Panthers have been the team to beat in recent postseason play, having reached the final match in each of the last five years with championships in 2007 and 2010. Saturday's second semifinal will renew a playoff rivalry between the Panthers and the Lord Jeffs, as the two squads have faced each other every year in the tournament dating back to 2005. Of the six games in the postseason series, four have been decided by a single goal. Middlebury holds a 4-2 edge over Amherst, winning the 2007 crown over the top-seeded Jeffs 1-0 before they returned the favor the following fall with a 2-0 victory over the number-one Panthers for Amherst's first championship.

On paper, the only noticeable difference between Amherst and Middlebury is their record. The Panthers struggled out of the gate to a 0-2-3 mark in league play, suffering a 3-0 setback at Amherst on Sept. 18 during that span, before going 3-1-1 in the second half of the season. Both teams lead the NESCAC in scoring with the Lord Jeffs boasting a 2.47 goals per game averaged compared to 1.87 for the Panthers (2nd NESCAC). Pacing the Amherst attack has been junior Spencer Noon (Farmington, Conn.), as his 11 tallies are tops in the NESCAC. The big question for Jeff fans will be the return of sophomore Jae Heo (Changwon, South Korea) to the lineup. Heo, second among his teammates in scoring with seven goals, has missed the last three games due to injury. For Middlebury, senior Martin Drolet (Lachine, Quebec) paces a balanced attack with six goals and an assist. The two clubs also feature stellar defensive units, each giving up just 10 goals over 15 outings, and each having a seasoned netminder. Amherst's legendary Lennard Kovacs (Wolfersdorf, Germany) is fourth among league keepers with a 0.64 goals against average and an .839 save percentage. Kovacs has six shutouts this fall and he enters the weekend with 30 in his career. Middlebury's Tim Cahill (South Glastonbury, Conn.) owns a 0.65 GAA (5th NESCAC) and a .773 save percentage (8th) with eight shutouts (2nd).

Before the Jeffs and Panthers clash on Saturday, third-seeded Trinity (9-4-2, 6-2-2 NESCAC) will take on fourth-seeded Williams (9-3-3, 5-2-3 NESCAC). The Bantams and the Ephs were in a three-way fight with Tufts for a home quarterfinal contest heading into the last match of the regular season. Trinity earned a home first round game with an impressive 2-0 win at Wesleyan on Oct. 26, and the Bantams made the opportunity count by downing sixth-seeded Connecticut College 2-1 to reach the semifinals for only the second time in tournament history. Williams needed just a single point in order to lock up one of the last home quarterfinal matches, and one point proved to be all the Ephs could get during a scoreless draw at Middlebury to close out the conference slate. Williams prevented an early exit from the conference tournament for the second year in a row with a pair of late goals in a 2-1, come-from-behind win over fifth-seeded Tufts this past Saturday.

No other team has more NESCAC titles than Williams, with five of the Ephs' six crowns coming during a dominating stretch between 2001-06. Since 2006 though, Williams has advanced to Sunday only once, defeating Middlebury in overtime for the 2009 championship. Trinity, on the other hand, is looking to write its name into the postseason history books. The Bantams earned their only other tournament victory in 2008 but fell in the semifinals to eventual champion Amherst by a 1-0 score. Over the past five years, Trinity has had the advantage during the regular season over Williams with a 3-1-1 mark, as the two squads played to a 1-1 draw in Williamstown back on Sept. 17. The Ephs won the only tournament meeting during the first round of the 2007 championship, doubling-up the Bantams in a 4-2 victory.

Saturday's first semifinal will feature a struggle between two of the conference's top defensive teams. Trinity, backboned by senior goalkeeper Grant Schonberg (Mendham, N.J.), owns a league-low 0.52 goals against average over 15 games, allowing just eight goals so far this season. On the other end of the pitch, Williams senior keeper Thad Finan (Williamstown, Mass.) heads up a defensive corps that is tied for second with a 0.57 GAA, surrendering just nine goals. It should come as no surprise, then, that the two keepers are at the top of the NESCAC in multiple areas, including save percentage and shutouts. Offense will be at a premium this weekend for both teams. The Ephs are tied for fifth in the conference in goals per game at 1.40, while Trinity is tied for eighth at 1.27.

Quarterfinals - Saturday, October 29 at Higher Seeds
at No. 1 Amherst 4, No. 8 Colby 0
No. 7 Middlebury 3, at No. 2 Wesleyan 2
at No. 3 Trinity 2, No. 6 Connecticut College 1
at No. 4 Williams 2, No. 5 Tufts 1

Semifinals - Saturday, November 5 at Amherst
No. 4 Williams vs. No. 3 Trinity - 11:00 a.m.
No. 7 Middlebury vs. No. 1 Amherst - 1:30 p.m.

Championship - Sunday, November 6 at Amherst
Semifinal winners - 12:00 p.m.

--courtesy NESCAC--