GREENSBORO, N.C. — Exactly 92 days ago, William Smith defeated Messiah College 2-0 in an early-season game of women’s soccer powers. It would be the Herons’ first home win and the last loss of the season for Messiah.
Three months later to the day, the two heavyweight programs met in the NCAA Division III national championship game at UNC Greensboro Soccer Stadium. The result would be different, as the Falcons from Mechanicsburg, Pa., scored a second-half goal and hung on to defeat William Smith, 1-0, to win their sixth national title and first since 2012. The Herons were trying to win their third national championship.
It was a clash of the titans with the No. 1 and No. 2-ranked teams in the nation battling for the crown. After a promising but scoreless first half, top-ranked Messiah managed to find another gear in the second half, making no mistakes en route to the crown.
Despite the heart-wrenching loss, William Smith head coach Aliceann Wilber said she was still incredibly proud of her team, which saw its 17-game winning streak snapped.
“Enormously proud,” Wilber said immediately after the loss. “Who they are, what they have accomplished, that goes without saying. So few teams and few individuals have a chance to play in the final four and national title so (while) we didn’t win the title — certainly we wanted to do that — I don’t think it detracts a whole ton from what these kids did to get themselves in that position.”
The two teams went back and forth early on, probing for each others’ weakness. The Herons, who finished 21-2-1, nearly jumped out to a lead within five minutes. A crossing pass from Katrine Berg curled right in front of the goal and found Sheila McQuillen who managed to get a touch on it. Somehow, however, Messiah goalkeeper Lydia Ewing managed to block the shot on the goal line.
The Falcons (22-1-3) applied heavy pressure through the first 25 minutes and went right at the heart of the Herons’ defense. It seemed early on that William Smith’s best chance at scoring would be on one of its deadly counter attacks.
“I think what makes Messiah Messiah is the ability to move the ball on one-two touches,” said senior defender Bizzy Moore. “There’s always runners and combinations, so it makes it difficult to track defensively and they played really well today, all hats go off to them. They gave us something we haven’t seen all season.”
The tide shifted a bit late in the first half with the Herons getting comfortable in Messiah’s end. Behind the aggressive play of Emily Sauvayre holding the midfield line, William Smith was able to get five shots off in the first half, though none as threatening as McQuillen’s first opportunity.
The second half usually bodes well for William Smith. Wilber’s team outplayed every opponent in the tournament in the second half, but Messiah would be a different story.
The Falcons came out more aggressive and caught William Smith off guard. Within 10 minutes of the half, Wilber noticed something was off with star defender Maia Martinez. She came out for a brief moment so the coaching and athletic training staff could assess her, and almost immediately after the substitution, Messiah’s Ellie Lengacher found a streaking Maddie Kohl with a through ball down the middle that put Kohl one-on-one with goalie Amanda Kesler. Kohl shot the ball on the ground to the right of Kesler and into the back of the net for what would be the game’s only goal.
“She definitely was exhibiting signs that something wasn’t right,” Wilber said of Martinez. “There was an issue going on and we were coming apart at the seam. So it could look like we made a colossal mistake taking her out, but … the goal would have happened regardless because we were falling apart at that point.”
William Smith exploded off the ensuing kickoff, however, and rushed down the field with numbers. Berg wired a shot from less than 18 yards out that was headed for the top right corner, but Ewing managed to get a hand on it.
That was the only threatening attack the Herons would have until the final minutes of the game.
Messiah regained its composure and possession and continued to pound away at William Smith’s back line and at Kesler, who had another all-world performance in goal. She made five saves in total and kept the Herons in the game from start to finish.
“They have All-American forwards who are very technical,” Kesler said. “They had great numbers coming in that were pressing our backs in ways we hadn’t seen. I felt we were under a lot of pressure.”
In the final 35 minutes, the Falcons simply found another level. They seemed to know every movement the Herons were going to make. Every turn, touch, pass and run, a Messiah player suffocated William Smith’s time with the ball and took advantage of forced errors.
They certainly looked different from the first time the two teams met this year.
“They play with a lot of patterns,” Wilber said. “Early in the season they haven’t had enough opportunity to really perfect the patterns which dictate their movement off the ball and how they find the ball and circulate players. So as the season goes on, they get better and better at that. They are a fine-tuned machine by the time we see them at Nationals.”
William Smith grew more desperate as timed wound down but Messiah would not give an inch. Every championship team has a bit of luck, too, and Messiah was no exception, but the Falcons’ excellent play won the day as they warded off one last McQuillen cross as the clock hit zero.
For many Herons, this would be the final game of their careers. Though the loss may never cease to sting, players like Moore view the entire season, tournament and Final Four as a life experience they will never forget.
“The reason we got this far was how close we all became,” Moore said. “That is not going to change after this (ends). We made memories this year that will last us a lifetime, and we will always have that to hold on to.”