Soccer is often described as the “beautiful game,” but even the most rabid fans would concede that there is nothing beautiful about penalty kicks. After 110 minutes of free-flowing, tactically-complex team play, matches come down to what is essentially a coin flip.
Amherst men’s soccer came out on the wrong side of that coin flip this past Saturday, Dec. 4., falling to the Connecticut College Camels in the NCAA Division III national championship game after 110 minutes of play saw the teams deadlocked at one goal apiece. To make matters worse, many Amherst players know this feeling all too well, having lost to Tufts in the final game the last time the tournament was played in 2019. The Mammoths can now claim an exclusive but unattractive title: back-to-back national runners-up.
This past weekend’s play, which took place in Greensboro, N.C., was so, so close to being one for the ages. They reached the final in remarkable fashion against the University of Chicago on Friday, Dec. 3. They went a goal down and clawed themselves back against Conn on Sunday, scoring an 89th-minute equalizer that seemed poised to be one of the program's all-time best moments. But then came penalties. History is written by the victors.
The Maroons would not have had to have watched much Amherst tape ahead of Friday’s game to understand the biggest challenge in front of them: German Giammattei ’22, who had four goals total in the sweet 16 and quarterfinal rounds. Chicago did that better than almost any team all year: with two Maroons defenders hounding him for much of the night, Giammattei was held without a shot for just the second time in his 64 career games.
They failed to disrupt the Mammoths' broader game plan, though. Amherst’s defenders and midfielders won the ball back with their normal ferocity. The Maroons could do little to stem the flow of Amherst’s famously direct offense — the long forward passes and Bryce Johnson ’22 flip throws into the box just seemed to keep coming. The game remained physical, the blood literally flowing — one Chicago player wore three different numbers over its course, sullying his first and then second jerseys with blood (all injuries were the result of totally accidental collisions).
Domination of possession translated into offensive production, with the Mammoths registering four first-half shots to Chicago’s one. That one shot gave Amherst quite the scare, though. In the 44th minute, a Chicago forward ripped a hard, right-footed curler from inside the box. Amherst keeper Kofi Hope-Gund ’22 was ready, though. He flung himself into the air towards his left side, grabbing the ball in mid-air with his body nearly parallel to the ground. The NCAA’s announcers for the game described it as “the best save we’ve ever seen at this event.”
The same pattern held throughout the second half — the Mammoths dominating possession but failing to find the final touch with their star forward double marked. Their best chance came in the 63rd minute, when Giammattei found forward Ada Okorogheye ’24 on the right side of the box. With only a slim angle to work with, Okorogheye let loose a low shot — but the Chicago keeper got his knees down just low enough, just fast enough, to deny him the winner.
However, despite a seemingly unending number of corners and throws into the box, Okorogheye’s effort was the closest the Mammoths got in the second half. The game moved into two 10-minute, gold-goal overtime periods.
The stalemate held for 18 minutes. And then, with the attention in Greensboro beginning to turn towards an imminent penalty shootout, a Chicago forward found himself one-on-one against Hope-Gund in the box. It was a must-score opportunity, but, as he did all tournament, Hope-Gund stood strong: diving to his right, he parried the ball away.
Almost as soon as play resumed, the Mammoths won a throw-in near the Maroon’s goal. For the umpteenth time, Johnson sent a flip throw into the box. It was cleared away, only to be crossed back in. The well-organized Chicago backline sent it back out, as they had been doing all night. But for some reason (probably because they had been running for 108 minutes), the defenders in maroon and white failed to follow the ball out. It floated down toward Ignacio Cubbedu ’24 on the edge of the 18-yard box. He didn’t even wait for it to bounce, taking a lash with his right foot. He hit the ball perfectly. It sliced through the sea of bodies in the box and nestled into the left side of the net. The Chicago keeper dove, but he never had a chance. Cubbedu’s volley stopped the clock, won the game, and ended the Maroon’s season.
The game against Connecticut College was quite similar, especially in the first half. Even with Giammattei swarmed, the Mammoths still largely played the game on their terms, putting up four shots and preventing the Camels from taking a single one.
In the second half, the Mammoths, playing their second game in 24 hours, began to visibly tire. Their defense cracked for the first time in the NCAA tournament during open play in the 60th minute, when NESCAC player of the year Augie Djerdjaj rose to nod a corner past Hope-Gund.
The Mammoths seemed shaken, especially as the minutes wore on. Their play began to feel slightly frantic — passes misplaced, balls lost. As the game entered the last few minutes, each set piece felt like it might be the Mammoth’s real chance. They began to send more and more players — at times even Hope-Gund — forward, cramming the Camels’ box and leaving themselves vulnerable to counterattack. Still, Conn’s defense held firm, turning away each throw, each corner. Things increasingly felt hopeless. The Mammoths flung ball after ball down the field in search of a miracle.
Then, with just over 90 seconds remaining, Laurens ten Cate ’25 was fouled just inside the halfway line. Hope-Gund stood over the ball, prepared to send one last prayer into the Camels’ box. But then he stepped away, replaced by Cubbedu. Hope-Gund trotted towards the Conn net. Amherst was sending 10 players into the box.
Cubeddu — less than a day removed from the semi-final-winning volley — played a looping pass into the box. It was a perfect ball: close enough to the end-line to allow Amherst players to run onto it, far enough from the Camels’ keeper to prevent a catch. It glanced off the head of defender Kyle Kelly ’22, bounced off the Conn keeper, then ricocheted off Kelly’s waist, dribbling into the back of the net. Amherst had tied the game. It was utter pandemonium in Greensboro — and, probably to a somewhat lesser extent, in Amherst, as an increasing number of students gathered around phones, laptops, and TV sets to tune into the action. Kelly and his teammates could hardly believe it. It’s the kind of moment a young soccer player dreams about growing up. Less than two minutes left. National Championship game. One last chance. This really happened, though. The Mammoths had done it.
Well, kind of. The game was tied, not won. Up to 20 minutes of overtime awaited.
The Camels put up five shots to the Mammoths’ one across the two 10-minute periods, but the Amherst back line was never seriously troubled. Amherst had one good chance, with about four minutes left in the second period. Okorogheye dribbled past three players before playing a give-and-go with Declan Sung ’24, finding himself with a look on goal in the center of the box. He drove a hard shot, but it was blocked by a Camel defender. That was the last shot of the game, as the two exhausted teams seemed to acquiesce to a penalty shootout.
One might expect that the Mammoths — having rescued the game at the death — would have had the momentum advantage in the penalty shootout. But from the beginning, it was clear things wouldn’t go their way. The Camels presumably won the coin toss, because they kicked first — a massive advantage in shootouts.
The Camels made their first attempt, a bullet of a shot on which Hope-Gund had no chance. Felix Wu ’22 stepped up first for the Mammoths and aimed for the bottom left. The Conn goalie — who had been subbed in just for penalty kicks — guessed the right way and cemented his team’s 1-0 advantage. The Camels again scored. The Mammoths again went bottom-left with their next attempt, this one from Johnson. And, again, the Camels’ keeper dove the right way, saving the shot at full stretch and securing an almost insurmountable 2-0 lead. The Camels made their next attempt, as did the Mammoths, via Gabe Gitler ’22. But, with a 3-1 lead in this best-of-five contest, all the Camels needed to do was make their fourth penalty.
They made it. The Camels stormed the field. The Mammoths walked off quietly.
It was surely not how Amherst’s 10 seniors would have preferred to end their season, but as Head Coach Justin Serpone pointed out in a post-game interview, this senior class has much to be proud of. They reached four NCAA Sweet Sixteens and two national championship games, despite having their careers interrupted by Covid-19. Serpone will now be faced with the challenge of rebuilding a team that started seniors in all key areas of the field.
But Amherst men’s soccer has made 11 straight Sweet Sixteens. They have a strong base of underclassmen talent, some of whom now have significant postseason experience under their belts. Make no mistake: they will be back.