MIDDLEBURY — Two key plays late in Sunday’s NESCAC quarterfinal gave the No. 3 Middlebury College women’s soccer team a 1-0 overtime win over No. 6 Bowdoin and sent the Panthers on to this weekend’s league final four at Williams.
Leading scorer Annie Rowell headed home a Drew Smith serve in OT for the game-winner, a play made possible by goalie Lauryn Torch’s heady save in the final minute of regulation.
The 11-2-2 Panthers controlled play and outshot the 8-7 Polar Bears, 27-8, but Bowdoin pressed in the late going and earned a free kick outside of and to the left of the Panther box.
The Polar Bears’ Ellery Gould sent the kick across the box to Dana Riker, who one-touched the ball to Christine Aceto near the penalty stripe. She sent it back to Gould, who had cut past the Panther defensive wall toward the left post.
But Torch read the play and came out to meet Gould and deflected her point-blank shot wide to preserve both the scoreless tie and the Panthers’ hopes for the NESCAC playoff title — and the automatic NCAA Division III tournament berth that goes with it.
Panther coach Peter Kim praised Torch (four saves), who with plenty of help from sweeper Anjuli Demers and outside defenders Jenny Galgano and Valerie Christy posted her seventh shutout.
“Torch came up big for us at the right time,” Kim said.
The win capped a bittersweet five-day stretch for the Panthers. After hammering Johnson & Wales on Wednesday, 7-0, they had fallen at home, 1-0, to undefeated Williams, the top team in NESCAC and New England and No. 2 in the nation, despite outshooting the Ephs, 15-5.
In the NESCAC semifinal the Panthers will face No. 2 Amherst, a team that defeated them on the road, 6-1, in their most unfortunate outing of the fall.
But Rowell, a junior striker from Craftsbury who leads the Panthers with 10 goals, said those recent games, even the setback against the Ephs, have prepared them for the final four.
“We had a high-scoring game on Wednesday, and we played really well against Williams, which we all felt really good about,” she said. “So we’re feeling pretty confident with the way we’re playing. We’re looking forward to the weekend.”
Against Bowdoin, the work of the Panther midfielders helped Middlebury dictate play. Senior Lindsay Walker, junior Kirsten Lundquist, senior Margaret Owen and Smith, a junior, all were effective moving the ball, finding open space off the ball, defending their Polar Bear counterparts and winning battles for possession.
Panther forwards Rowell and Amy Schlueter, a freshman, put steady pressure on the Bowdoin back line, but the Polar Bears — notably right wing back Molly Duffy and sweeper Tiernan Cutler — defended well, and truly dangerous chances were rare.
One came from Rowell in the eighth minute, when she walked in from the right side, but fired high from 10 yards. Four minutes later, Rowell again beat the left side of the Bowdoin defense, but her eight-yard shot from an angle went right to Bowdoin keeper Kat Flaherty.
In the 21st minute, Walker had Owen alone at the left post, but her serve from the right side had too much pace. Paola Cabonargi set up Rowell from the top of the box in the 38th minute, but Rowell’s shot found Flaherty (12 saves).
The second half was more of the same. Rowell headed high on a Christy direct kick, Cutler broke up Rowell on a Schlueter feed on a corner kick, Duffy knocked a Schlueter serve away from Rowell, Galgano headed high on a corner kick, and Schlueter shot high from 20 yards.
Bowdoin mustered some chances. Galgano headed away one corner kick in the 35th minute, and Torch tracked down a long-range bid from Casey Blossom in the 43rd minute, not long before her key late save.
In OT, the Panthers broke through with 6:40 gone. The winning play developed on a throw-in to Smith from the right sideline. She made a move to gain space, and then served a high ball past the penalty stripe toward the far post. The charging Rowell got inside position on her defender and bounced a strong header past Flaherty, off the underside of the crossbar and in.
Kim, whose team has made strong tournament runs, praised his team for prevailing in a tough postseason game.
“Bowdoin ... defended really hard and gave us a real run for our money. I got a little nervous there at the end,” he said. “You know what the playoffs are like. It’s all about heart and determination, so I give the girls credit for coming through.”
The Panthers are coming off an 8-6-2 2008 season. Rowell said several things have come together to make for a better 2009.
“We’re all more of a singular mind. We feel stronger as a team, and we have a stronger midfield that is able to set up balls, and we’re a really fast team. And everyone’s really physical and loves battling,” she said. “And I think that combination has made for a really good season.”