Men’s Soccer Wins NESCACs With Overtime Heroics
This past weekend, the men’s soccer team downed both Middlebury and Connecticut College in overtime on the way to a NESCAC Championship. It was the team’s first title since 2016.
It was a banner weekend for Amherst men’s soccer, as the team won its first NESCAC title since 2016 with a pair of 2-1 overtime victories over Middlebury and Connecticut College in the semifinals and finals, respectively. The program’s sixth conference title has secured the team a bid to this year’s NCAA Division III National Championship tournament.
The No. 6 Mammoths made the short drive to Williamstown, Massachusetts, the tournament’s neutral host site, for a full weekend of NESCAC tournament games. First up on the itinerary was a 1:30 p.m. bout with national No. 20 and tournament No. 4 seed Middlebury on Saturday, Nov. 5, in the NESCAC semifinals.
This game had every indication that it would be a tightly-contested affair: When they met in the regular season, the Mammoths and Panthers walked away from Hitchcock Field deadlocked in a 1-1 draw. Determined not to repeat this outcome in the postseason, the Mammoths got right to work. In the 22nd minute, after a run of attacking play, the Mammoths were rewarded — and like so many times this season, their goal came through the air. Niall Murphy ’25 sent a long-range, perfectly paced diagonal cross into the box from distance, where the Mammoths’ leading scorer Fynn Hayton-Ruffner ’25 was waiting to meet it. He headed it past the Panthers keeper and into the bottom left corner for his team-leading eighth goal of the season.
The Mammoths carried this lead into halftime, but in the first minute of the second half, the Panthers struck back with a goal off a header of their own, this time created from a corner kick. With the score knotted at 1-1, Amherst continued to put pressure on the Panthers’ defense throughout the half. Laurens ten Cate ’25 got a close-range header off in the last minute of regulation in an attempt to give the Mammoths the upper hand, but the Panthers goalkeeper thwarted this effort and sent the game to a 20-minute overtime period.
However, Amherst did not appear deterred, and just three minutes into overtime, they put the nail in Middlebury’s coffin. Alex Shahmirzadi ’23E launched a long throw-in into the box, where Micah Valadez Bush ’25 was battling for position with a Panther defender. Valadez Bush boxed out his defender and headed the ball behind him towards the general direction of the goal, and Aidan Curtis ’25 — the reigning NESCAC Player of the Week — managed to get a piece of it to send the ball past the goalie amid a scrum in front of the net. With the 2-1 lead from Curtis’s goal (as overtime is no longer played golden-goal style), the sophomore defensive pairing of Simon Kalinauskas ’25 and Ben Clark-Eden ’25 stifled any offensive threats from the Panthers. And 15 minutes later, when the 20-minute overtime period concluded, the Mammoths walked away with the semifinal victory.
A mere 24 hours later, the Mammoths headed into the NESCAC Championship on Sunday, Nov. 6, for their second tough test of the weekend. Facing off against defending national champions — Connecticut College — Amherst was eager to leave it all out on the field and avenge their penalty-kicks loss to the Camels in last year’s national championship game and their 1-1 tie in this year’s regular season.
Though Amherst came out strong, preventing Conn. from registering a single shot for much of the first half, the Camels showed the opportunism that helped them become defending champions. Against the run of play, Conn. sent a shot that found its way past goalkeeper Bernie White ’23E in the 40th minute — their first shot of the game — to draw first blood. The score remained that way for the remaining five minutes, and the Mammoths entered the halftime break with just 45 minutes to keep their NESCAC title hopes alive.
White kept the score at 1-0 with his first save less than a minute into the second frame, and the Mammoths fought back, finding the equalizer after only 13 more minutes of play. In the 58th minute, Clark-Eden beat his defender to a pass from Valadez Bush on the right wing, sliding to send a cross floating into the box. Shawn Rapal ’24E used all six feet and eight inches of his height to make the connection, heading the ball past the Conn. goalkeeper into the far-post side of the net for his second goal of the year. And with strong offensive and defensive efforts on both sides, including two blocked shots from Curtis on the backline, the two teams would head to overtime once again.
Unlike their thriller in the national championship from a year ago, the Mammoths didn’t let this game get to penalty kicks: Like the game against Middlebury the previous day, the Mammoths rose to the occasion during overtime once more. In the 96th minute, Hayton-Ruffner linked up with Valadez Bush on the right wing, getting the ball to his classmate’s right foot amid a sea of four Camel defenders. Like the Mammoth’s first goal, Valadez Bush sent another dangerous ball to the far side post. Though the cross initially seemed to harmlessly sail over the heads of both Curtis and Wyatt McCarthy ’24, Declan Sung ’24E snuck in behind two Camel defends and rocketed a diving header into the back of the net for a critical 2-1 lead.
With the score sitting at 2-1, Amherst’s defense stepped up for the remaining 14 minutes. And while in the final seconds, the Camels made one last desperate attempt to tie the score, White came up with the clutch save to secure the win. With his fourth goal of the season, which ended up being the most important of the year, Sung was named this week’s NESCAC Player of the Week.
With the 2-1 victory against Connecticut College, the Mammoths are NESCAC Champions, and receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament in which they will host the first two rounds of play. Their campaign for their first national championship since 2015 will begin against Husson University on Nov. 12 at Hitchcock Field. If they win on Saturday, they will face either St. Lawrence College or Roger Williams University on Sunday, Nov. 13. Kickoff on Saturday is set for 11 a.m.