Nov. 14, 2009

Courtesy of Messiah Athletics

GRANTHAM, Pa. - With an 11 a.m. start time, Saturday’s NCAA Second Round contest against 19th-ranked Eastern University was the earliest game of the year for Messiah.

Judging by the hosts’ initial play, the Falcons are clearly not morning people.

A sluggish start was buoyed by a strong defensive effort, however, as Messiah (20-0) responded with a 3-0 win — advancing to NCAA Third Round competition for the second consecutive season.

Despite registering seven of the game’s first eight shots and peppering Messiah’s defense for five penalty corners in the contest’s first 16 minutes, the season came to a conclusion for Eastern (18-5) in the loss.

“We started a little slow today, no question,” said 37th-year Messiah head coach Jan Trapp, who coached her 700th game as the Falcons’ leader. “I think we were a little tight physically. Mentally, we were okay, but our legs didn’t seem fresh early. It wasn’t until we got loosened up a bit that we really started to play.”

In retrospect, the Eagles’ biggest downfall was not being able to take advantage of their early opportunities, as Eastern controlled the majority of possession — and scoring chances — throughout the lion’s share of the first half.

The visitors’ best chance may have come off the team’s second penalty corner of the day — with just 6:52 elapsed — as Eastern’s Lindsay Moyer blasted a high shot from the left wing.

Senior goalkeeper Ashley Mowery came up with one of her three first-half saves, however, and Messiah kept the board clean.

“Our defense really stepped up,” Trapp said. “Denying (Eastern) a goal early was so important. If you’re playing a good team, and you don’t capitalize early, that can be really detrimental to a team. We talk about that, from our perspective, all the time. I think it can really take the wind out of your sails if you control the game the way Eastern did, and have nothing to show for it on the scoreboard.”

Perhaps ironically, it would be Messiah that would capture the game’s first goal, coming with just under 17 minutes remaining in the first half. Junior forward Kourtney Ehly secured the ball on the left side of the attacking third, and pushed the ball laterally into the circle. She then lunged forward and fired a back-handed slap-shot from 10 yards out, beating Eastern goalkeeper Laura Ressler into the center of the cage.

If Eastern’s lack of offensive production was disconcerting, Ehly’s score was a backbreaker: It came off Messiah’s second shot of the day, and third true offensive possession in the Eagles’ end of the field.

From that point on, Eastern’s frustration would seemingly mount.

Messiah slowly took control of the possession game and added an insurance goal just five and a half minutes after the first, with junior Amber Philpot doing the honors. Following a restart from the left flank, the Falcons put on a beautiful display of passing, switching fields before junior Julie Barton slotted the ball to freshman Natalie Ziegler.

Ziegler then changed the flow of play and redirected the ball back to Philpot, who was stationed on the left side of the Eagles’ circle.

Philpot one-timed Ziegler’s pass with a firm flick, sending the ball between Ressler and the near post for arguably the most aesthetic goal of the day.

“I thought our passing game really improved as the game went on, and that was our biggest difference,” Trapp said. “We really started looking for people and connecting with people, and we seemed to come to life. We began to have each other’s backs, clean up other people’s mistakes. We led people into double-teams and worked together.”

That improved play was evident on the stat sheet, as Messiah outshot Eastern by a 7-3 count in the second half — after being outdone by an 11-6 difference in the first.

Ehly tacked on Messiah’s third goal of the day at the 48:38 mark, taking a slip feed from senior Katie Love and finishing a low, sliding effort to the near post — earning her eighth multiple-goal effort on the season.

Ehly had another golden opportunity to pad her scoring statistics at the 55:08 mark, being chosen to take a penalty stroke following an illegal foot save from an Eagles’ defender on a certain goal from Love. Ehly’s flip was saved by Ressler, however, one of her 11 saves overall.

For Eastern, though, counter attacks were few and far between. Mowery finished her sixth wire-to-wire shutout — and Messiah’s 10th overall — with little drama, saving a back-to-back shots just 10 minutes into the second period, arguably Eastern’s best chances in the game’s final 35 minutes.

Messiah’s improved play led to an 18-9 advantage in overall shots. Eastern finished the game with a 9-6 lead in penalty corners.

“I thought Julie Barton did some really good things for us again in the midfield,” Trapp said. “She really started our offense from her (center midfield) position, and she is always so unselfish.”

The win constituted Messiah’s second over Eastern on the year — the Falcons won a 5-1 decision at Anderson Field back on Sept. 9 — while it was also the second straight year Messiah dashed the Eagles’ hopes in the NCAA Tournament’s Second Round: The Falcons collected a 3-0 win in last year’s tilt, also played at Anderson Field.

Messiah will now await the winner of Saturday’s other Second Round affair at Anderson Field, as #7 Lebanon Valley College (18-3) and #8 Rowan University (14-4) go to battle at 2 p.m. The Falcons will take on the winner of that tilt Sunday at 3:30 p.m. for the right to advance to the national semi-finals, taking place next weekend at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.