It would be fair to say that the biggest test of the season for the West Chester University women’s soccer team will be tomorrow afternoon in the NCAA Division II National Quarterfinals as top ranked College of St. Rose – the only remaining Division II team without a loss or a draw – visits the South Campus Soccer Complex.
St. Rose enters the match having won 47 out of their last 48 matches over the past two seasons. The lone loss for the Golden Knights was in last year’s NCAA National Semifinals against eventual national champion Grand Valley (Mich.) State. In that match, St. Rose jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first five minutes of the match before losing 3-2.
“We’re very anxious to play St. Rose,” said West Chester head coach Betty Ann Kempf-Townsley. “It will be great to have the home field advantage” for tomorrow’s showdown.
“We’re very excited about (tomorrow),” said Golden Ram senior forward Devon Swaim. “We can’t wait to see what all the hype is about.”
The Golden Knights (23-0-0) of Albany, N.Y. and the Northeast 10 Conference have allowed only six goals this season, thanks in part to a defense that is comparable to West Chester’s in that the Knights’ defenders aren’t giving their opponents too many opportunities to score against them.
“This is essentially a Division I caliber program playing in a Division II conference,” said St. Rose radio annoucner Chad Conway. The Northeast 10 (in actuality, 16 teams) isn’t exactly filled with weak teams; the conference boasts perennial regional and national powers such as Franklin Pierce (N.H.), Merrimack (Mass.), UMass-Lowell, American International (Mass.), and Southern New Hampshire.
Backs Katie Whiting and Kelly Guerin and midfielder Amanda Deck anchor a defense that has allowed only 5.5 shots per game, while Knights’ goalie goalie Deanna Esposito has allowed only three goals this season and enters tomorrow’s game with a 933 minute scoreless streak dating back to October 8 against Bentley (Mass.) – and that was an “own goal” in the 71st minute following a St. Rose “defensive miscommunication.” It was also a match in which the Falcons did not fire a shot on goal in losing 3-1 while being outshot 29-0.
The last opponent to score on Esposito was Lemoyne (N.Y.) College’s Christie Morano in the 69th minute of the match in Albany on September 15. The Dolphins ended up losing that game 8-1.
In fact, the Knights have only trailed for 13 minutes, 42 seconds out of the entire season. That happened against Southern New Hampshire, when Kasey Morrison scored in the 23rd minute to give the Penwomen a 1-0 lead. The Knights netted the equalizer in the 37th minute and took the lead just 26 seconds into the second half on the way to a 2-1 at Albany.
The Knights have allowed only one goal away from Albany this season – Stonehill (Mass.) did the honors in a 3-1 St. Rose win in Easton, Mass. on October 2. In fact, the Skyhawks were the only team to have outshot the Knights this season (11-8).
How good is St. Rose’s offense? They’ve scored four or more goals nine times this season, including four games of seven or more goals. They’ve outshot their opponents by an average of 20-5 per game. As exhibited by Friday’s defeat 1-0 of Long Island University-C.W. Post in the East Regional Final, that was a legitimate 20-plus shot per game average (the Knights outshot the Pioneers 21-5 and had several good opportunities on top of that which were not offically recorded as shots).
Friday’s win was only the fifth time this season that the Knights were held to one goal this season; three of those matches were against NCAA tournament participants American International (September 25), Franklin Pierce (at Rindge, N.H. on October 23), and vs. Bridgeport of the East Coast Conference last Sunday in the East Regional Seminfinal. The other 1-0 game was at UMass-Lowell on September 10.
As noted earlier, however, even when the offense is having an off day, the defense steps up huge for St. Rose.
A freshman, Sydney Bond, leads the Knights’ offense with 11 goals, including the lone goal in Friday’s match. “She would beat anyone in a foot race,” Cooper said. Junior Christina Cuffari is the team’s leading scorer (10 goals, 15 assists, 35 points) who set up Bond’s goal in the 58th minute yesterday.
Another player to watch is freshman Carmelina Puopolo, the team’s leading reserve scorer with 10 goals and 11 assists (31 points). The Canadian native has played in all 23 matches this season without starting a single one.
So, with all this talent, one would think that the Knights would walk into West Chester and roll out with a win over the #4 Golden Rams (18-1-3), fresh of their third shootout win in four matches, right?
Not so fast…
The Rams have PSAC Player of the Year Sarah Oswald, whose 58th career goal in the 54th minute against #10 California (Pa.) in the Atlantic Regional Final was the equalizer that helped force the shootout. It was the second goal in as many NCAA Tournament games for the senior from Macungie. It also tied her for second on the all-time scoring list with Julie Karcher (2003-2006) with 150 points.
It should be pointed out that Karcher’s senior season also included a trip to the 2006 NCAA National Semifinals; the Rams lost to eventual national champion Metro (Colo.) State 2-1 in double overtime.
Assisting Oswald on both goals in the NCAA Tournament was senior Devon Swaim. Swiam’s speed and ball handling ability has helped the the Rams to more than a few goals this season. Swiam, however, tweaked her ankle in Friday’s match against the Vulcans, though she stayed in the game and converted one of the penalty kicks in the shootout.
The Rams’ second leading scorer, sophomore Melissa McKeary (5-9-19) is developing into the go-to offensive threat who will likely be among those who will fill Oswald’s shoes next season.
The Rams defense, which has held opponents to 10 goals and 6.6 shots per game, is anchored by a senior backs Cindi Nickles, Jenna Arnold, and Lara Bodenstab, who along with junior Tara Malkiewicz have been aggressive in preventing offensive players from getting shots off anywhere near all-PSAC goalie, sophomore Lyndsie Bernardini.
In Friday’s match against Cal, Arnold stepped up for the Rams, making two key saves, including one in the final three minutes of the second overtime.
Bernardini, who came up huge in West Chester’s three shootout wins – including two in the PSAC Tournament that earned her the Most Outstanding Player award for the tourney – has an 0.46 goals against average and a team high 16 shutouts this season.
“With Lyndsie in net, anyone would be confident,” Swaim said of the sophomore from Elmer, N.J.
Despite the Knights’ perfect record on the season, the Rams could very well be the team that matches up best against St. Rose. While St. Rose did defeat C.W. Post yesterday, the Pioneers defense held up as well as any of the other defenses who’ve played at South Campus during both the PSAC and NCAA touraments this season.
The match kicks off at 12:00 p.m. tomorrow afternoon. The winner of this match faces the winner of the St. Edward’s (Tex.)-California San Diego match on December 2 in Louisville, Ky.