Heartbreaker for women's soccer

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE STRIKER Simone Ameer flies down the right wing past Stevens Institute of Technology defender Nicole Veraja during Sunday’s NCAA Division III Regional final. The Panthers lost to visiting Stevens despite outshooting the Ducks, 21-7. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE SENIOR women’s soccer players Ursula Alwang (0) and Caitlin Magruder (8) share the pain after the Panthers heartbreaking, 2-1 loss to visiting Stevens in Sunday’s NCAA Division III Regional final. Despite the Panthers’ significant edges in quality of play and chances, a late own goal proved to be their undoing. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE SENIOR forward Ellie Greenberg shields the ball from Stevens defender Erica O’Kelly in the first half of the Panthers’ 2-1 loss on Sunday in the NCAA Division III regional final Independent photo/Steve James
Sometimes the other team beats you, and sometimes the game beats you. Today the game beat us a little bit. — Panther Coach Peter Kim

MIDDLEBURY — After Sunday’s NCAA Division III Regional final, Coach Peter Kim of the host Middlebury College women’s soccer team called his six seniors the most successful class in the program’s history.

The six seniors — goalie Ursula Alwang, forward Ellie Greenberg, and midfielders Virginia Charman, Olivia Miller, Caitlin Magruder and Sabrina Glaser, all but Glaser starters on Sunday — had helped the Panthers to make four consecutive NCAA appearances, including a run to the 2018 final, and win the 2018 NESCAC playoff championship.

But after what proved to be a heartbreaking, 2-1 loss to Stevens Institute (17-3-1) on Sunday, the Panthers were left with an empty feeling after they failed to duplicate their deep NCAA run of the year before.

“There was potential for more,” Kim said.

Despite that disappointing end to their season the Panthers finished 14-3-3; earned second place in NESCAC’s regular season, a single point out of first; again reached the NESCAC championship game; and after being ranked as high as No. 1 in NCAA D-III in the regular season entered the postseason with the No. 9 ranking.

Kim praised the Panthers’ work effort and chemistry this season.

“We’re a strong team and a strong family, and they put it all out there, for sure,” he said.

On Sunday, the Panthers outplayed Stevens from start to finish. They controlled most of the action at midfield, linking up crisply with the ball, reading passing lanes and defending well, while their defense allowed just three shots on goal.

But two went in, Gianna Nitti’s brilliantly struck, curling 35-yard free kick in the third minute, and a flukishly unlucky own goal that snapped a 1-1 tie with 15:04 to go.

And for the ninth straight game Middlebury scored two goals or fewer. Panther shots went high, wide or right at Stevens keeper Izzy DiDario, who counted some fine stops among her 10 saves. Another 11 efforts were off target.

Kim afterward tried his best to be philosophical.

“Sometimes the other team beats you, and sometimes the game beats you. Today the game beat us a little bit,” Kim said. “We had every chance up until their goal line, and the ball didn’t want to go in. And then we got one unlucky break, and the own goal cost us the game.”

Nitti’s strike came from the left side and curled high into the upper right corner, giving Alwang no chance despite the distance of the strike.

The Ducks were dangerous when they did break through the Panther midfield, but defenders Isabelle Hartnett, Rose Evans and Magruder (moved to defense) nicely snuffed out the occasional foray.

At the other end DiDario made early saves on Charman and Eliza Robinson, but the first golden chance came 20 minutes in, when leading scorer Simone Ameer beat DiDario to a high Gretchen McGrath serve from the right and had an open net behind the keeper, but her header sailed high.

With 11 minutes left in the half neither Ameer, Miller nor Evans could get a foot on the ball during a scramble after a corner kick.

With five minutes left in the half Ameer, on the left, popped the ball loose across the goalfront to McGrath, who chose to settle the ball rather than risk flubbing a one-timer, although the net was open. But that gave DiDario time to dive across and deflect McGrath’s five-yard shot wide right with her fingertips.

The Panthers continued to press in the second half. A high ball toward Eliza Van Voorhis racing in toward the left post looked promising, but she and DiDario arrived at the same time, they collided and both went down, and the ball bounced away. Van Voorhis did not return.

Middlebury finally broke through with 23:08 to go in regulation. Robinson took a direct kick from straightaway about 35 yards out and lobbed it toward the left side of the box. Miller was first to the ball and gently left-footed it into the upper left side of the net.

Disaster struck eight minutes later. The Ducks broke up a clear on the Panthers left defensive side. Duck Emily Damrell made a nice move to cut past a defender to the top of the box, but her left-footed shot looked harmless. However, it hit a defender who felt obliged to make a play on the ball because another Duck was lurking, and it deflected past the helpless Alwang and just inside the right post.

The best Panther chance down the stretch came on a long ball that sent Miller into the box, but DiDario was there first to collect it, and time ran out on Middlebury’s season.

On the day before, Middlebury defeated the University of New England, 2-0. The Nor’easters finished at 13-6-2.

Middlebury controlled the game, but did not score until 18 seconds remained in the first half, when Ellie Bavier was credited for bodying in Miller’s serve from the right side. It looked like the ball might have bounced in off Charman, who was also in on the play, but either way the Panthers had the lead. Robinson made it 2-0 with 14:37 to go, finding the lower left corner from the right side of the box after beating a defender.

Alwang did not face a shot, while UNE keeper Jenna Pannone made eight saves.

That game will go down as the last victory for the Panther seniors, whom Kim said will be remembered.

“They’ve been a great combination of technical ability and physical ability. They’re just good soccer players. They’ve all been contributing since they were freshmen,” Kim said. “It’s a strong group.”

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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