Women's Soccer Heads To NESCAC Semi's

November 2, 2011

Undefeated Amherst College will look to earn its first league title since 2003 when the top-seeded Lord Jeffs host the final rounds of the 2011 NESCAC Women's Soccer Championship this weekend at Hitchcock field in Amherst, Mass. Amherst will open Saturday's action when it faces fifth-seeded Wesleyan at 11:00 a.m., as the Cardinals are making their first-ever semifinal appearance. Following the first match on Nov. 5 will be second seed Middlebury versus third seed and four-time defending NESCAC champion Williams. Saturday's winners will meet Sunday at 12:00 p.m. for the NESCAC crown.

It has been a remarkable fall for Amherst (15-0-0, 10-0-0 NESCAC). The Lord Jeffs ran the table in the NESCAC, joining the Williams' squads of 2001, 2007, and 2009 as the only teams to ever complete the regular season without any blemishes. Of Amherst's program-record 15 wins, nine have come via shutout, as the Jeffs allowed only one goal over their first eight games and surrendered only three goals in conference play. At first glance it appears as if Amherst has outright dominated its opponents this fall, but a closer look reveals that the Jeffs have had some adversity and handled it well. Amherst has had three overtime matches and twice posted come-from-behind wins with both victories coming on the road. The most memorable win for the Jeffs may have been their most recent, a 3-2 overtime decision over Bowdoin in blizzard conditions during the quarterfinal round this past Saturday.

Amherst appears to have all of the pieces for a deep postseason run. The Jeffs' offense produces nearly three goals per game, almost a goal better than the next-closest conference team, while the defense is not surprisingly atop the stat sheet with a 0.45 goals against average. It all starts in net with the play of senior goalkeeper Allie Horwitz (Woodbridge, Conn.). The Jeffs' number-one option in net over the past four years, Horwitz has enjoyed a stellar season with a 0.87 goals against average, an .883 save percentage, and six shutouts, figures that all rank among the league's best. Up front, the triple threat of junior Kathryn Nathan (Pembroke, Mass.) along with sophomores Sarah Duffy (Fairfield, Conn.) and Chloe McKenzie (Upper Marlboro, Md.) have given opposing defenses fits. The trio's 27 tallies account for over 60 percent of Amherst's scoring this season with Duffy's 13 goals leading the way.

While Amherst will be focused on adding a third NESCAC championship trophy to the collection, fifth-seeded Wesleyan (9-5-1, 5-5-0 NESCAC) will be looking to spoil the host's perfect season. The Jeffs have reached Sunday's final three times over the last five years. The Cardinals, who earned a spot in the tournament field for only the fourth time in playoff history, with all four appearances coming in the last four years, are in the semifinals for the first time ever after advancing past fourth-seeded Tufts in the quarterfinals via penalty kicks. The outlook looked dire for Wesleyan following a 2-1 double-overtime loss at Middlebury on Oct. 1, as the Cardinals owned a 1-4-0 conference mark over the first half of the season, but things turned around the next day - literally. Wesleyan posted a 4-2 victory over Colby on Oct. 2 and went on to win four of its next five NESCAC outings, the lone loss coming at Amherst on Oct. 22, 3-0.

If the Cardinals hope to have a shot at the 2011 NESCAC crown, they will have to do something they haven't done during some of their players' lifetimes - beat Amherst. Wesleyan is 0-18-1 against the Lord Jeffs since 1993, including two losses that came in the quarterfinals of the 2008 and 2009 playoffs, both by a single goal. Planning to test the Amherst defense for a weakness will be the Wesleyan tandem of junior Laura Kurash (Voorhees, N.J.) and sophomore Kerry Doyle (North Haven, Conn.), as the two have put home 18 of their team's 24 goals this season. Enjoying a career year on the pitch, Kurash's team-leading 13 goals are tied for second among all players. Kurash has been the difference-maker for Wesleyan, as she has recorded the decisive goal in six of Cardinals' nine wins. Doyle is second to Kurash in scoring with five goals and a team-high seven helpers.

Saturday's second contest pits two familiar foes against one another in a rematch from the 2010 semifinals when Middlebury (11-3-1, 7-2-1 NESCAC) squares off against four-time defending NESCAC champion Williams (10-3-2, 7-2-1 NESCAC) for the fourth time in the last five tournaments. The two clubs met recently on Oct. 26 with the Panthers posting a 1-0 victory. The decision not only snapped an eight game winless skid against the Ephs, during which the Panthers went 0-7-1, but it also gave Middlebury the head-to-head advantage over Williams for the second seed in this year's playoffs.

Although they entered this year's tournament as the third seed, the Ephs are still the team to beat for the NESCAC championship. Williams hasn't lost a playoff game since 2007, however this year's first round proved to be a close call for the five-time league champs. Down 1-0 to sixth-seeded Hamilton midway through the second half, the Ephs' Lilly Wellenbach (West Bath, Maine) tied the contest in the 64th minute and the two teams finished in a 1-1 draw before Williams advanced via penalty kicks by a 5-4 margin. Saturday's semifinal showdown will be the eighth time the Ephs and Panthers have clashed in tournament history, and Williams holds a significant 6-1 advantage over Middlebury in the series. The Ephs' 2004 title came in penalty kicks against the Panthers, while their 2009 crown was won by a single goal, 3-2. During last year's championship, Williams posted a 2-0 shutout of Middlebury before dispatching Amherst in the final, 1-0. Looking to lead the Ephs to another championship is senior Brett Eisenhart (Seattle, Wash.). Eisenhart has accounted for nearly half of Williams' goals this season, as her team-leading 10 tallies rank fifth in the conference.

Like Amherst, Middlebury has two conference crowns to its credit. The Panthers won the inaugural NESCAC tournament in 2000 as the top-seeded team, downing Tufts 2-0, then earned their second title in 2006 by upending host Amherst in overtime 1-0. Middlebury brings one of the top offenses in the NESCAC into the weekend thanks to the stellar play of sophomore Scarlett Kirk (San Francisco, Calif.). Kirk has accounted for 13 of the Panthers' 26 tallies this fall, as she is currently tied with Amherst's Duffy and Wesleyan's Kurash for second in the league. If Middlebury hopes to contend for the championship against the three other semifinalists then its defense will need to be rock solid. Anchored by junior back Colby Gibbs (Cheshire, Conn.), the Panther defense is a respectable third amongst conference foes in goals against average (0.71) and shutouts (seven).

Quarterfinals - Saturday, October 29 at Higher Seeds
at No. 1 Amherst 3, No. 8 Bowdoin 2 - OT
at No. 2 Middlebury 2, No. 7 Colby 0
at No. 3 Williams 1, No. 6 Hamilton 1 - 2OT
Williams advances on penalty kicks, 5-4
No. 5 Wesleyan 1, at No. 4 Tufts 1 - 2OT
Wesleyan advances on penalty kicks, 5-3

Semifinals - Saturday, November 5 at Amherst
No. 5 Wesleyan at No. 1 Amherst - 11:00 a.m.
No. 3 Williams vs. No. 2 Middlebury - 1:30 p.m.

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

-- courtesy NESCAC --