SAN ANTONIO --  Erin Hench scored two goals and assisted on another, leading the Falcons to a 3-1 victory against rival Wheaton (Ill.) on Saturday. The national title is the fourth in program history, following championships in 2005, 2008, and 2009.

Hench is part of a senior class that graduates with an accumulated record of 96-1-4, with their lone defeat coming in the 2010 national championship game to Hardin-Simmons.

“What can you say about this senior class?” head coach Scott Frey said. “They’ve lost one game in their careers and have been to four national title games. And this one today—it was one of the most memorable.”

Saturday’s victory against Wheaton College certainly was memorable, as the Falcons found themselves down 0-1 after just seven minutes of play.

The Thunder’s early goal came off the head of freshman Anna Seabolt, who placed a high-arching shot over the reach of Messiah keeper Autumn Reilly to the upper right corner of the goal. Seabolt’s shot came off a header from teammate Katelyn Kishkunas after Vale Lelle crossed the Thunder possession into the box from the right wing.

Trailing in a game for the first time since October 5 (2-1 win against Eastern University), and for only the second time in 2011, the Falcons did not take long to respond.

In the 15th minute, junior Alex Brandt played a through ball from the midfield to senior Lisa Wingard down the right sideline. Wingard chased the ball down and drove it towards the end line, firing a cross from 20 yards out. The ball traveled right to the front of the net where Hench was on a run towards the goal. At the six yard line, Hench directed the ball off her head and past Thunder goalkeeper Kesley Graham. Graham, who stayed on her line in the goal, was unable to react to the sharp direction from Hench as Messiah knotted the game at 1-1.

The goal seemed to deflate the Thunder for a long stretch.

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Though the Falcons did seem to start controlling the play on the field, the Thunder almost regained a lead in the 32nd minute of play off a set piece from a corner kick. The kick resulted in a cross from the left side went to the far post of the Messiah goal. Junior Liz Phillips cleared the wind-turned shot from the box before Reilly made a save near the right post on a shot by Seabolt.

With the half slowly coming to a close, the Falcons would also nearly take the lead, but not in traditional fashion. In the 40th minute, a cross from Wingard on the right wing sailed across the box in front of the Thunder’s goal where it was deflected by Lelle. The deflection was fired back across the open net and just wide of the right post, leaving the Wheaton faithful holding their breath in the stands.

The teams entered the half tied at 1-1, with both sides taking three shots. Reilly made two saves in the first half for the Falcons.

In the second half, those good feelings from the Thunder almost resulted in a quick goal. A free kick from 35 yards out on the right side was controlled by junior Laura Karsten at the six yard line near the left post of the Messiah goal. Karsten’s touch off her chest went to the goal line where it would be bobbled and secured by Reilly.

From that point on, the Falcons began to assert themselves.

In the 51st and 53rd minutes, respectively, Messiah juniors Rachel Scheibeler and Corinne Wulf were able to drive the ball into the left side of the box for the Falcons before getting clear shots on Wheaton keeper Hilary Barreto, who began the second half in the net for the Thunder.

In the 56th minute, freshman Mackenzie Clapper launched a shot from the left corner of the 18 yard line to the far right post of the Wheaton goal. Barreto, who would make six saves in the second half, grabbed Clapper’s shot from in front of the crossbar.

The Falcons’ offensive assault would break through just a few minutes later. Hench would be played a ball up the right sideline from sophomore Ali Rogers, posting up on the corner of the 18 yard line. A swift turn over her right shoulder led her into the box and past her defender as she attacked one-on-one with Barreto. Hench’s quick strike from 8 yards out would be blocked by Barreto, with the rebound coming back to Hench for another shot—this time, a score to center of the goal.

Hench’s second goal of the game, and eighth in the 2011 NCAA tournament, would give Messiah a 2-1 lead.

Now facing a 1-2 deficit with less than thirty minutes remaining, the Thunder were thwarted on their best chance for a game-tying goal just moments later. A Wheaton attack across the Falcons’ 18 yard line on the left side of the box was stopped, with the ball finding it’s way to Seabolt—alone—on the right side. Her shot from 15 yards went on a line to the top center of the goal where it was punched over the crossbar by Reilly at the last possible moment. The save, one of four on the day for Reilly, guarded the 2-1 Messiah lead.

With Reilly’s exciting save protecting the lead, Messiah continued pressing into its attacking third of the field. In the 68th minute, Brandt again played a ball out of the midfield to the right wing. This time, Hench would receive the pass and drive the ball to the edge of the box on the right side, lofting a low cross into the middle of the box where it was met by freshman Hannah Weyland. Weyland, who just moments before had entered the game as an injury replacement for Scheibeler, directed the cross with her head into the back of the net to give Messiah a commanding 3-1 lead.

The goal was the second of Weyland’s young career.

Wheaton’s final chance at a score came in the 83rd minute, as Seabolt flicked a cross from the edge of the right end line across the Messiah goal. The ball rolled along the goal line, settling untouched on the left side of the box before being grabbed by Reilly.

The Falcons, too, came close to extending their lead in the final minutes, nevertheless finishing with a 3-1 win and another NCAA Division III Women’s Soccer National Championship.

With the loss, Wheaton completed another impressive season under the instruction of head coach Pete Felske. In his 24th season leading Wheaton, the Thunder finished 23-2-2, advancing to their sixth Final Four in the past 11 years. They earned National Championships in 2004, 2006, and 2007—combining with Messiah to hold seven of the previous eight national titles in NCAA Division III women’s soccer.

“Credit to Messiah for the win today,” head coach Pete Felske said . “They’re the better team and we made mistakes today that cost us. I’m proud of our girls for working hard and for the season we had.”

Meanwhile, the Falcons completed the 2011 season undefeated with a record of 23-0-1. In completing his 12th season with the Falcons, Frey holds a career record at Messiah of 252-13-12.