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Monday, Dec 11, 2023

Men's Soccer Stuns Williams in Overtime Thriller

Author: David Lindholm Assistant Sports Editor

Williams came into Saturday's match with a record of 13 wins, no ties, no losses. They had scored 52 goals and allowed 10. Alex Blake, their leading scorer, had scored 22 goals and had nine assists, leading the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) by a huge margin. Williams had not lost in their last 51 regular season matches. However, when the Ephs play Middlebury, none of this seems to matter. And the Panthers clawed and scratched their way to a 1-0 overtime victory on Saturday, to the delight of the team and the roughly 250 fans in attendance.

On Sunday, the Panthers played a less important game in terms of emotion and much more important in terms of their livelihood: a NESCAC first-round tournament match-up against Bates. This game was less hard-fought as Middlebury dominated the whole game, coming away with a 2-0 win.

Saturday was a big game for both teams. Williams had a Middlebury Head Coach Dave Saward knowing beforehand that he would not need to say much to get his team mentally prepared for the match, and the game proved to be reminiscent of last year's 1-0, 4 overtimes Middlebury victory in the NESCAC Championship game.

Senior keeper Brian Hamm was one of two Middlebury heros on Saturday; his five saves were spectacular and gave his team the edge psychologically. When a goalkeeper gets hot and plays as well as Hamm has, the entire team plays with confidence: a feeling of invinsibility fuels their play. It was Hamm's second straight shutout and fourth of the season.

The other hero was first-year John Rusten, who headed in a free kick by Jason Griffiths '04 with five minutes and 27 seconds into overtime to with the game. The sudden-death golden goal gave Middlebury the victory, and the team flooded the field to congratulate Rusten. Hamm sprinted up the field to join the celebration and ended up being hoisted atop his teammates' shoulders for a brief moment.

After the game, Williams Head coach Mike Russo was distraught. "Our guys played very well, but it was just one of those games," Russo said. "Middlebury played us very tight defensively, and unfortunately we were just never able to break through. Give a lot of credit to their goalkeeper [Hamm] — he came up big a number of times. We kept hoping we'd be able to put them away but it just wasn't meant to be."

Saward was in complete agreement. "Brian was magnificent," he said.

The loss ruined Williams' chances at a perfect season, though they played a good game in every area except for one: finishing. Williams dominated play in midfield, retaining possession and getting off a massive 22 shots. However, only five of these shots were on goal, and Hamm was up to the task for all of them. The Panther defense was also able to stifle NESCAC's leading scorer Alex Blake, a Jamaican who has been instilling fear into markers all season.

"We just need to find ways to score goals," Williams coach Russo said. "It's true that we haven't had much trouble scoring this season, but that can be a little deceiving because defenses tend to get stronger and more compact as the season wears on.

This was true of the Middlebury defense that has allowed only five goals in the team's last nine games. Everyone in the back played strongly, and Saward was beyond pleased at the performances of his backs.

"Danny Roda '04 was absolutely magnificent. Jason [Griffiths] was great too. Todd Maloney '03 marked Blake for the bulk of the game and did a marvelous job."

The Williams victory gave Middlebury confidence heading into the NESCAC tournament that started on Sunday, and gave Williams doubts. "I think we can pick up the pieces; I certainly hope we can," Russo said.

Saward was more worried about his team letting down after the big win. But again the team came up big, receiving an outstanding performance from fullback Bryce Wolf '03 en route to a 2-0 first-round win over Bates.

"It's ironic that you mention your backs in a win, but Bryce did outstanding work," Saward said. "They [the team] did a great job of being ready to play on Sunday. It was a really professional performance."

It was a fourth minute goal from sweeper Griffiths that put the Panthers ahead, providing all the offense the team would need. A corner kick from senior Nat Shoaff found its way over the Bates keeper and onto the head of Griffiths, who slammed it into the net. The early goal gave Middlebury the momentum, which they used well, allowing Bates few opportunities and creating plenty of their own. Shoaff put the game away in the second half, scoring a goal in the 62nd minute for the 2-0 lead.

The team now looks toward Tufts, who they will meet at Williams next weekend. Saward knows that Tufts is a good team, and despite the Panthers' 3-0 victory earlier in the season, everyone knows that this is not a team to be taken lightly. Tufts advanced using pure heart, winning a shootout against Wesleyan on Sunday in the first round. The two teams were deadlocked at 3-3 after regulation, and four overtimes could not produce a winner. So after 150 minutes of play, Tufts managed to win the shootout 5-4 for the win.

"I think they are a very good team," Saward said. "We managed to get three by them early in the year but I think on the whole they're very tight in the back."

With a win, Middlebury would advance to the NESCAC final and face the winner of the Williams-Bowdoin matchup. Middlebury should expect to face the Ephs, who trounced the Polar Bears 5-1 earlier in the year and will be itching for the chance to get another crack at Middlebury.

But if we know anything about Middlebury men's soccer, it's this: they'll be ready.