Nov. 16, 2009

Grantham, PA -- With the final 70 seconds ticking away on the Shoemaker Field scoreboard in Sunday night's NCAA Second Round match-up with Endicott College -- and the score still knotted 0-0 -- Messiah was in need of an answer.

Cue arguably the greatest scoring combination in the history of the program.

Junior Erin Hench slotted a well-timed through ball to senior Amanda Naeher with just 1:09 remaining in regulation, and Messiah's all-time leading scorer knew exactly what to do: Taking a touch to clear room at the top of the penalty box, Naeher fired a low and decisive blast to the far post, connecting on Messiah's 34th shot of the game.

It was the 12th Hench-to-Naeher combination on the season, as Messiah escaped with a 1-0 win over a gritty and determined group from Beverly, Mass.

"You get to this level, and it's never easy," said Scott Frey, Messiah head coach. "Teams that are here can play. You've got to make the most of your opportunities, or you'll find things get difficult very quickly."

Although there was a euphoric ending for Frey's group, the foregoing minutes saw an offensive struggle as Messiah (21-0-1) blasted 33 shots before the goal, putting only three of them on frame -- the lowest output on the season for the Falcons.

From the opening whistle, Messiah controlled the majority of play, creating their signature possession game while connecting on passes through the midfield.

But on this night -- despite a laudable effort from the speedy wingers and the midfielders -- Messiah could not consistently place shots on frame or challenge Gulls' fifth-year senior goalkeeper Amy Meuse, who previously boasted a nation-long consecutive minutes scoreless streak of 1,063:59.

Frey took notice Meuse's ability, even if the majority of his team's shots failed to test her.

"(Meuse) is very aggressive; very smart; very good," he said. "She controlled the box well for (Endicott). She was solid in the air and I thought she played a great game."

Finding confidence in their keeper's play, Endicott (17-5-1) played aggressively when they had possession in the attacking third, taking advantage of counter attacks that were few and far between.

The visitors' best chance would come at the game's 27:09 mark -- a moment which produced Endicott's only shot of the night.

From the left side of the field, Gulls' senior midfielder Caitlin Flynn crossed a deep ball that kissed of the crossbar and directed toward freshman defender Christine Silva, who made a dash on the right side behind the run of play. With the ball on her right foot and junior defender Molly Bletz stepping, Silva cut back and blasted a shot that sailed just high over the crossbar and into the cool dark night.

At the half, Messiah looked to have control of the game but the scoreboard was still blank with nothing to show for 15 shots -- zero placed on frame -- and five corners.

Typical Messiah soccer, this was not.

"We created some good looks," Frey said. "You can do all the right things but (soccer) will always come down to finishing. When it comes to this time, tournament time, against a team like this, you have to finish good looks. When you do, it makes the game look easy. When you don't, it makes the game look hard."

Chances again came and went for the Falcons in the second half, as 19 second-half attempts went begging. As each second ticked hard away on the clock, however, so did the Falcons to the Gulls. Frey's group continued to press and press until the ball went out on the left side with just over a minute and a half to go in the game.

After a battle on and off the ball with Endicott defenders, sophomore Leah Sipe and senior Amy Horst combined to regain possession for Messiah. Horst then passed to Hench, who was open in the midfield.

Hench carried the ball closer and closer to the Gulls' penalty box, eventually drawing a double team. With defenders pressing, Hench touched a pass to Naeher, who was trailing on the play. Naeher took a dribble for control and bashed a low shot to the far post, just past Meuse for the night's only score.

Naeher's 73rd career goal was of utmost importance, and the Seymour, Conn. native's reaction told the story: Naeher sprinted toward the Messiah bench following the score, embracing teammates before the center official stepped in to break up the celebration.

The 88-plus minutes were the longest stretch that Messiah was held goal-less on the season, as the previous mark of 59:25 came during Messiah's 2-0 win over Johns Hopkins on Sept. 9. Ironically, the game-winning goal that stopped that stretch came via Naeher to Hench, their first connection of the year.

The Falcons finished Sunday's game with 35 shots -- five on goal -- and nine corners. Endicott was only able to generate its lone first-half shot, complementing a second-half corner kick.

With the loss, the Gulls conclude their season with a record of 17-5-1, after wining The Commonwealth Coast Conference Championship and advancing over SUNY Geneseo in the Saturday's NCAA First Round, coming in a 6-5 penalty-kick decision following a 1-1, double overtime tie.

Messiah advances to the NCAA Sectionals for the sixth straight year and ninth time in 10 years with the win. The Falcons will next face Otterbein College after the Cardinals (20-1-1) advanced over Denison University in a 1-0 decision Sunday afternoon at Otterbein.

Game time, date and location for Messiah's next tilt have yet to be announced by the NCAA. Check back to this website for information regarding NCAA Sectional information, or log on to www.NCAA.com for tournamet information and interactive brackets.