After tearing her ACL in just the ninth game of her freshman season, Natasha Albaneze has made a memorable comeback.
Back for her sophomore year, Albaneze has sent her Williams Ephs to the Division III national championship with two goals in a come-from-behind 2-1 win over Centre Friday afternoon at Swope Soccer Village in Kansas City, Missouri.
“It was a long, long road but everybody was super supportive,” Albaneze said of her recovery. “It was a tough situation but it definitely could have been worse. [My teammates] were very patient with me to get me back to playing at this level.”
Williams started the match on the wrong foot by conceding a goal in just the 2nd minute to Centre forward Destinie Graves. Graves hit a shot with her left foot inside the 18-yard box that rolled into the bottom left corner of the goal.
But after Graves’ goal, Williams grabbed the initiative to take more control. By the end of the game, Williams had recorded 15 shots to Centre’s 4.
“We came out with a lot of fire which is what we wanted,” Graves said. “But there were instances where we broke down.”
The pressure mounted in the 70th minute when Williams began to attack from the midfield. Albaneze found the ball at her feet 20 yards from goal and unleashed a curling shot to the far post to level the score at 1-1.”
Five minutes later in the 75th minute, Williams forward Kristina Alvarado dribbled down the endline into the six-yard box and was fouled by Centre Defender Tori Dillard. The penalty call set up Albaneze to finish into the bottom left corner of the goal for what would end up being the winning goal in the game.
“This team is one of the steadiest teams I’ve ever coached,” Williams coach Michelyne Pinard said. “I knew that we were not going to get rattled by [the early goal.] Once they scored that goal we just stepped back and said, ‘time to compete.’ And that was what got us through.”
The loss for Centre ends an unlikely run to the first tournament semifinal in school history. Last season, the Colonels made it to the quarterfinal.
“We knew we were something special [at the beginning of the year,] we wanted to take that and roll with it,” Graves said. “To me personally, [making the semifinal] means a lot because I love this program and I want to build a legacy, I want people to recognize our name.”
Williams, however, has claimed its second straight trip to the Division III tournament final with the win. Last year, Williams lost the title game to Lynchburg in a penalty shootout.
Pinard said her team, the only school making a return to the semifinal this season, was able to prepare much more easily having made it this far just a year earlier.
“It feels very comfortable I feel more comfortable I know the kids feel more comfortable,” Pinard said. “Knowing we did it last year really gave us confidence to step on the field today.”
Moving into the final, Pinard said she hopes her team can be better offensively against a tough Washington-St. Louis defense.
“We really want to keep the ball spread around and move it quickly,” Pinard said. I think we can attack at a faster pace. That’s something that we take away today, we’re very pleased and proud of our toughness but I think we know we can attack at a fast pace.”