Underdog Cards fly away with title

After a thrilling win over Bates College in the quarterfinals, the fourth-seeded Amherst men traveled to Williamstown, Mass. on Saturday to meet third-seeded Middlebury College for the semifinal match. Although they defeated the Panthers 2-1 earlier this season, the Jeffs approached Saturday’s game with cautious confidence, aware that the favored Middlebury squad could easily end their season. Luckily, the seniors refused to let their soccer careers end in the semifinals. In the 13th minute of play, forward Joe Gannon ’06 sent a well-placed cross to co-captain midfielder Ben Lavely ’06 who redirected the ball with a header past Middlebury keeper, and reigning NESCAC Player of the Week, Zack Toth. The two squads battled for the remaining 77 minutes, but neither could muster another successful offensive attack, and the game ended in a 1-0 victory for the Jeffs. This huge win brought Amherst to the most important game of their season: the conference final.

Since Wesleyan University just barely claimed the seventh and bottom seed for the NESCAC Tournament this fall, many spectators assumed that this would be an easy match for the Jeffs. “We were very confident after beating Middlebury again, and we felt like we were peaking at the right time of the season,” said midfielder Ryan O’Donnell ’08.

Unfortunately, the Jeffs’ strange habit of struggling against the Cardinals was evident in Sunday’s competition. Although the game remained scoreless for the beginning of the first half, Wesleyan first-year Matt Nevin notched a pair of goals at the 32-and 34-minute marks to give the Cardinals a substantial lead. To the dismay of the Cardinals, the Jeffs rallied at half time and quickly got back in the game. At the 62nd minute, Amherst mounted the scoreboard with a much-needed goal from O’Donnell off of an assist from forward Nick Lynch ’09.

The senior class then took charge again 13 minutes later when senior midfielder Jay Kloppenberg sent a pass to classmate midfielder Adrien de Bontin who shot the ball past the Wesleyan keeper to level the score at two. Nonetheless, Amherst’s momentum was broken just a minute later when Wesleyan sophomore Ross Pemmerl got lucky with an unassisted and title-winning goal from beyond the eighteen.

“The final game, much like our season, was a roller coaster ride,” said O’Donnell. Yet, while disappointing, this game should be recognized not for its adverse outcome, but for the unyielding fight that characterized its play. Amherst’s impressive ability to come back from a two-goal deficit in the conference final is a true credit to this team’s virtue. This persistent effort is also appropriately reminiscent of the team’s overall performance this fall season. “There were many points this year in which we could have just given up and folded from within, but we never stopped battling,” said defender Rob Madden ’07. “After a slow start, we continued to work hard and it showed in our last game when we moved crisply and efficiently.” Madden also spoke endless praises of the graduating class, and conceded, “We are left with vacancies that will be hard to fill.” Yet Madden remains optimistic, reassuring soccer fans that the Jeffs can be “extremely confident that when we return that next year we can accomplish everything we want: the NESCAC league title, victories over Williams and Wesleyan and winning NCAAs.”

While the Jeffs did not receive a bid for the NCAA tournament this year, the team looks forward to a relaxed winter of local indoor competition, summer training and a fresh start in 2006. “I know my last image of that field was all the Wesleyan players and fans celebrating,” said O’Donnell. “And that will serve as motivation to get back to the championship game, and hopefully to the NCAAs.” With a strong core of underclassmen, including now-veteran goalkeeper Jeff Grover ’09, the Jeffs will surely be a competitive force again next fall.