MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College men’s soccer team entered Saturday’s home game riding high, with an 11-1 record, a five-game winning streak, a No. 13 ranking in NCAA Division III, and a chance to clinch first place in NESCAC against a Bates team that entered at 4-7-1 overall, 1-6-1 in the league.
Things didn’t go as planned.
Bates cashed in on its only shot on goal, a first-half direct kick, and then held on under relentless Panther second-half pressure for a 1-0 upset.
The Panthers remain in first with a 6-2 record, but now must win at Williams (5-1-2) to ensure they stay there. With Bowdoin also lurking at 5-1-2 and Amherst at 4-1-3, the picture has become murky.
Panther coach David Saward said a setback like Saturday’s can make a team’s psyche “a little gentle,” but believes his team, which has still allowed only four goals, can bounce back vs. the Ephs.
“You’ve got to react to being stunned,” Saward said. “But we’ll probably respond fine. It’s that mentality of stepping up when you need to.”
But a repeat of Saturday’s performance probably won’t be adequate, he said. In the first half, although the Panthers outshot Bates, 6-4, those four Bates shots at net were all dangerous as the Middlebury defense looked vulnerable on long serves and throw-ins into the box.
And Saward was not happy with the Panthers’ effort in the opening frame.
“We played for 45 minutes out of 90, and that’s not enough. We’re certainly not good enough to do that,” he said.
In the second half, the Panthers bottled up the Bobcats and outshot them, 9-1, but could not equalize, in part because Bates goalie Greg Watts (four saves) played well.
“I thought the second half was a half-field scrimmage,” Saward said of the lopsided play.
Bates had the game’s first good chance — in the 12th minute Panther center back Matt Martin blocked a shot from the top of the box. In the 25th minute, Bobcat forward Nick Barron shot high after a direct kick into the Panther box.
At the other end, Bates back Ethan Kass twice denied runs by Panther Jake Edwards, and Panther defender William Gevertz overlapped and served well from the right corner, but an Alex Colucci header went wide. Then came the best chance, a drive by forward Tyler Smith from the 18 that Watts knocked to his right to Edwards, who fired the rebound high in the 31st minute.
The Bates goal came after Pitney and Colucci cleared another dangerous serve, but the Panthers fouled a Bobcat just outside the box. At 38:08, John Murphy curled a left-footed shot around the Panther wall and high into the net, off goalie Tim Cahill’s hands. It appeared Cahill might not have seen the well-struck shot immediately.
The Panthers dodged another bullet before the half: Ethan Hirshberg headed high from point-blank on a serve from Tyler Mehegan.
In the second half Panther midfielders Robbie Redmond, Carson Cornbrooks, Edwards and Otis Pitney controlled play while center defender Harrison Watkins and flank backs Gevertz and Graham Knisley stepped up to disrupt Bobcat clears and start the Panther attack.
But the ball wouldn’t go in, even when the Panthers earned four early direct kicks deep in the Bates end. On the third, Watts stopped Redmond, and the ball bounced loose before Bates cleared. On the fourth, Watkins stepped through for a header on an Edwards serve, but deflected the ball right to Watts.
Midway through the half, Bates just beat Edwards to a pass from Tyler Macnee, and later Cornbrooks shot high from Watkins, and Smith couldn’t convert a Redmond feed. The Panthers’ last good chance came with about seven minutes left, when Cornbrooks fed Watkins, who moved into the attack after Macnee was banged up, for a 12-yard one-timer that Watts corralled.
Saward hopes the team he saw in the second half will show up this Friday, and not dwell on last Saturday’s loss.
“We’ve got a good foundation,” he said. “A couple of those (second-half chances) go in, and you’re walking off feeling completely different.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]