Nov. 22, 2010

Grantham, PA -

Courtesy of Messiah Athletics

Sunday night, the Falcons punched their collective ticket to the `Final Four' the old fashioned way.

They earned it.

Facing a talented and aggressive Johns Hopkins University side, Messiah made the most of two early scores and held off a potent Blue Jays' attack late, advancing to the national semi-finals for the eighth time in program history behind a 2-1 win at Shoemaker Field.

Goals in the eighth and 11th minutes were all the Falcons could register against an opponent that refused to go away, posting a score of its own in the 23rd minute and nearly adding an equalizer on numerous occasions.

It was all Messiah head coach Scott Frey could do to stay calm throughout the contest, as - despite temperatures in the mid 40's - Frey paced the sidelines wearing nothing more than Dockers and a Messiah sweatshirt.

"I wasn't thinking about being cold," he said afterward. "I was thinking, `this is hard.' Hopkins is a great team. They were after us. They pressured everything. We had to fight like crazy. We haven't had to fight like this in a long time."

Scratching and clawing was in order right from the opening kickoff for Messiah (23-0), as Hopkins opened the contest with a flurry of activity. The Blue Jays' Erica Suter sent a pair of dangerous serves from the left side of the field within the opening three minutes - her first effort being nabbed by junior goalkeeper Autumn Reilly and the second being cleared off the end line amidst a crowd of blue and white jerseys.

When Hopkins' midfielder Allie Zazzali sent a perfectly placed long ball down the center of the field in the fifth minute, teammate Paulina Goodman got behind the Falcons' defense.

It appeared Goodman would beat Reilly to the ball just outside Messiah's 18-yard box, but the Falcons' backstop showed some fleet feet of her own, clearing the ball out of danger literally nanoseconds before colliding with Goodman violently.

For the nearly 1,000 in attendance, it was not a typical beginning to a Messiah women's soccer game this season.

Still, the ensuing six minutes were.

After sophomore Alex Brandt collected a pass with time and space in the midfield, she found classmate Corrine Wulf streaking down the left side, slipping a gorgeous through ball to Wulf in stride.

Wulf took a touch and beat Hopkins' goalkeeper Meredith Maguire low and away, giving Messiah a 1-0 lead at the 7:14 mark.

Just over four minutes later, the hosts were at it again. This time it was sophomore Rachel Scheibeler who initiated the scoring sequence, getting to the end line on the right side before crossing a looping ball into the JHU six-yard box.

Maguire leapt and came up with the initial serve but lost the ball on her way to the ground, the ball squirting out of her grasp ever so slightly.

It was all senior Joanna Haqq would need, however, as the Belchertown, Pa. native continued her run from the left wing, toe-poking the loose change into the back of the net from four yards out at the 11:37 mark.

"Both were great goals," Frey said. "Alex made a few mistakes tonight, but overall she was fantastic. She broke pressure for us and created chances in the midfield. I told her before the game that she had to be the difference for us. In a lot of ways, she was."

Even with Brandt's play in the midfield and a two-goal deficit in hand, Johns Hopkins (19-4-1) refused to wither away. Continual pressure all over the field kept the Falcons from connecting their usual bevy of passes -- while creating chances for the visitors.

In the 19th minute, JHU's Pamela Vranis one-timed a shot from nearly 20 yards out, but Reilly was able to make the save. Just three minutes later, the Blue Jays' Suter nearly made it a 2-1 ballgame, blasting a shot from the left flank that kissed off the top of the crossbar.

With 22:51 elapsed, Hopkins would cut the Messiah lead in half, scoring a goal nearly identical in nature to Haqq's: Following a cross from Suter, Reilly appeared to come up with the ball. Like Maguire, however, Reilly couldn't come down with the ball cleanly, and JHU's Goodman was there to blast the ball into the back of the net from just off the end line, finishing her 10th goal of the season in a crowded mess.

Frey's club was able to get out of the first half with no more damage done, though a shot from Goodman in the 26th minute also grazed the crossbar.

"We were just trying to get to halftime," Frey admitted. "I thought we were reeling a bit at the end of the first half. We had to make some adjustments because we just could not handle their numbers in the middle of the field for some reason."

Frey and company elected to change things up in the second half, eschewing the usual all-out attack in favor of a more defensive-minded scheme.

"We had to shore up the middle (of the field)," Frey said. "It would have been nice to get another goal, but we couldn't give up another one. You can't always win 4-0."

Allowing just two goals all season long prior to Sunday's contest, Messiah's back line was put to the test. With Hopkins frantically searching for the equalizer, the Blue Jays outshot the Falcons by a 6-4 count in the final 45 minutes while recording two corner kicks to the hosts' one.

Still, Frey's halftime alterations proved effective. The pace of the game slowly settled, with the majority of play occurring in the midfield.

JHU's best opportunities at a game-tying score came on three distinct opportunities. In the 60th minute, a Blue Jays' corner kick was initially cleared out, but the deflected attempt settled to the feet of Vranis, who sent a laser on frame only to have her attempt blocked. In the 80th minute, the Blue Jays' Suter again got in on the left side, sending a screamer to the far post that again caromed off the crossbar.

Perhaps the Blue Jays most dangerous chance came with just three minutes remaining as, following a Messiah corner kick, Hopkins mounted a counter-attack.

After crossing the ball into Messiah's 18-yard box, three Blue Jays fired three shots - though all three were blocked. Hopkins' Erin Stafford, Suter and Goodman all came up with deflections, re-sending well-struck shots back toward the Falcons' frame.

With defenders back, Messiah was able to clear all three attempts, eventually milking the clock with possession in the midfield.

"I thought things were a little more settled in the second half, but in those last seven minutes or so they really put on a spurt," Frey said. "We seemed to get a bit tired and made some mental mistakes, and they just kept pressuring. For the fans, it was a fantastic (NCAA) Division III soccer game. But it's games like tonight that remind you how hard it really is. I'm not sure if I've ever been prouder of a group for digging in. For this to be the last game our seniors play on Shoemaker Field ... they'll never forget it."

The win secured Messiahs' seventh consecutive berth into a `Final Four,' while it was the second straight time the Falcons defeated Johns Hopkins to do so: Messiah handed the Blue Jays a 3-1 loss on Homewood Field in last year's sectional final, also beating JHU by a 2-1 count Sept. 8 of this year.

"I thought tonight's game was very similar to our game at their place earlier in the year," Frey said. "We scored two goals early, they cut it to one, and it was a fight. They just don't go away. They have a lot of belief, and they've got reason to have belief. They have girls that can play. I just think they're a very good team."

Messiah will next face William Smith College on Friday, Dec. 3 in one of the NCAA Division III National Semi-Final contests at the Blossom Athletic Center in San Antonio, Texas. Hardin-Simmons University will meet Otterbein College in the other. It will be a re-match of the 2008 national semi-finals for the Falcons, as Messiah handed William Smith a 3-0 defeat before crushing Wheaton College (IL) 5-0 to capture its second national crown.

"William Smith is a program that has constantly been in the hunt," Frey said. "They are always well-coached and well-prepared. It is going to be a tough one. I think tonight's game was a good preparation."

Fans can get detailed information on the 2010 NCAA Division III Women's Soccer National Championships at NCAA.com. Additional information will be made available on this site as it becomes known.