Nov. 22, 2009

Courtesy of Messiah

BALTIMORE, MD - Winning a game in the closing seconds?

That's so yesterday's news.

Messiah scored early and often in Sunday's NCAA Sectional Final at Johns Hopkins University's Homewood Field, defeating the host Blue Jays by a 3-1 score to cash their ticket to the Final Four -- marking the program's sixth straight trip.

Junior Erin Hench got Messiah on the board just eight and a half minutes into the game and senior Amanda Naeher tacked on an insurance goal just 20 minutes later, as the Falcons got back to a more traditional method of winning: After needing two overtimes to dispatch Otterbein College in Saturday's sectional semi-final and requiring nearly 89 minutes of soccer to get past Endicott College in the second round, Messiah went to work quickly Sunday, scoring the team's 100th, 101st and 102nd goals of the season.

"We changed up a few things with the hopes of putting a little more pressure up front," said Scott Frey, Messiah head coach. "I think that really helped us control the game early."

That pressure began early for Messiah (23-0-1), as 30 seconds into the game Frey's team would set the tone for the rate of play. With quick touches and a certain look of dominance, junior Joanna Haqq and sophomore Leah Sipe carried the ball through the middle of the field with relative ease. Johns Hopkins (19-4-0) was required to pressure, leaving Naeher almost unmarked outside the 18-yard box.

Haqq passed the ball to Naeher, who turned and rocketed a shot from 25 yards out with authority.

The shot was saved by JHU senior keeper Karen Guszkowski, but it seemed to send a message to the Blue Jays:

We came to score.

Eight and a half minutes in, Messiah did just that. Hench received the ball from the defense at midfield, and laid it off to Naeher, who charged past the last defender on the left side of the penalty box. Her lefty shot was saved by Guszkowski, but the backstop could not control the save. Sipe came sprinting in from the midfield and fired a putback effort, but it was deflected by a defender to the feet of Hench -- standing six yards out on the right post.

She scored on the wide open net with ease, putting Messiah ahead 1-0 with just 8:35 elapsed.

Message received.

With possession and control in the attacking third, the Falcons continued to play with energy and purpose, giving their all on every play to keep the pressure on the Blue Jays. Sophomore Kelsey Gorman joined the attack as she made a run down the right side towards the endline, where she hit a low and hard cross into the middle, just sliding past Guszkowski and deflecting off a defender in front of the goal.

Sipe was there to receive the mis-touch, but her shot after missed wide left at the 12:20 mark.

Just past the 28-minute point, Naeher was fouled 23 yards out on the right side by a Hopkins defender. Hench stepped up to the ball, touched it to senior Amy Horst, who laid the ball in the path for Naeher. The Seymour, Conn. native struck a perfect ball past both the defensive wall and the near post, artistically scoring her 30th goal of the year.

With the double-assist, Hench set the program's single-season (17) and career (38) assist record, passing former teammate and '09 grad Rachel Horning's single-season record of 16 helpers; also bypassing `01 graduate Sarah Strzepek's career record of 37.

Those numbers were merely a subplot to the greater story unfolding on Homewood Field, as Messiah was dominating the host Blue Jays by halftime, outshooting the hosts 12-3 while holding a 7-0 advantage in first-half shots on goal.

Frey said he was ready to get out of the habit of scoring late in games to win.

"We had a plan of what we wanted to do," he said. "We wanted to put them on their heels. We wanted them to be under pressure from the get-go and we did that. We had several good looks in the first half and as always, getting one early always helps our cause."

Looking for the one that would break the backs of Johns Hopkins, Messiah - ranked number one in both the D3soccer.com and NSCAA/Adidas Top 25 final polls - started the second half with the same intent to score.

Eleven minutes into the period and finding herself on the right wing, Hench carried the ball down to the endline and struck a cross which deflected off a Blue Jay defender for a corner kick. Junior Katie Hoffsmith stepped up to take the hit, and she delivered a beautiful searching ball that found Hench on the near post. Hench one-timed the cross and in went for her 16th goal on the year, and a 3-0 lead with just under 34 minutes to play.

Maybe Frey's club thought that this was the one that would put Hopkins away, but sadly, they were mistaken. JHU sophomore Erica Suter received the tap after Hench's score and beat the Falcons' defense by herself, and matched Hoffsmith's beautiful cross with one of her own.

Blue Jays' junior Allie Zazzali met the ball with precision and struck the ball with fineness, screaming it past sophomore keeper Autumn Reilly for the goal just seconds after Hench's.

"(Zazzali) was good for them," Frey said. "She created pressure on our back row but they could not have responded in a better way. I know we gave up a goal, but (senior Carey Cortese, junior Molly Bletz, and Hoffsmith) came up big for us all afternoon."

After the goal, JHU seemed to build up momentum -- subsequently pushing forward with all the energy they had. A minute after their goal, the Blue Jays were rewarded a free kick just outside the Messiah box, and junior defender Jessica Hnatiuk sailed a deep ball into a scrum of both Falcons and Blue Jays alike. Whatever happened in the box may be a mystery to fans, but the result was a rocket that barely missed the post for Hopkins.

Thankfully for Messiah, the tenacity and physical play of Hopkins was countered by the stamina and depth of the Falcons' second unit, a group which earned Frey's praises afterward.

"The second group played the best they have played all year," he said. "They kept the pressure up, they kept control on the ball, they were patient. They countered pressure really well. I can't say enough with how pleased I was with their effort."

With the clock ticking away the final minutes, Messiah gained possession in typical fashion, minus the late dramatics that have come en vogue as of late. And when zeros came across the scoreboard, the bench cleared and darted out onto the field.

Screams of joy filled the air as it would be another trip to the Final Four for the Falcons, the program's sixth straight trip and seventh overall.

"It feels really hard to get here," Frey said after the game. "It is always difficult. We are the only team returning for last year's group (at the Final Four) and that just shows how hard it is to get to this point. We are excited to have this opportunity (to defend the title)."

Messiah will compete in one of two national semi-finals on Friday, Dec. 4 in San Antonio, Texas, taking on post-season rival The College of New Jersey (20-2-1), which defeated Ithaca College by a 1-0 score Sunday to advance. Lynchburg College (18-3-3) will take on Washington University-St. Louis (17-3-2) in the other semi-final.

All games will take place at Blossom Soccer Stadium. While specific game times have yet to be announced, the women's semi-finals will take place at 12 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. (EST). The national championship game will be played Saturday, Dec. 5 at 2 p.m. (EST).

Detailed information on the NCAA Division III soccer championships can be found at the official championships website or at the `championships central' website. More details will be posted on this website as they become known.