The men’s soccer NESCAC tournament matchup against Middlebury last Saturday, Nov. 1 was as close and competitive an affair as any sports cliché could describe. After finishing 1-1 in regulation, playing two scoreless overtime periods, and going tit-for-tat in first-round penalty kicks (PKs), Wesleyan and Middlebury went into sudden death PKs to decide which side would advance to the semifinals in NESCAC playoffs. After a Panther hit the net to put his team up, 5-4, Middlebury’s goalkeeper blocked the last Cardinal PK to end the game.
“I think our team played very well,” wrote Chris Kafina ’16 in an email to The Argus. “It might’ve been the best we’ve played all year. We had the majority of possession and had better scoring opportunities throughout the game. I thought Middlebury played decently. They sat back on defense which made it difficult for us to get chances on net.”
In a rematch of Wesleyan’s 3-1 loss to Midd two weeks ago, the Cards’ offense outmatched their opponents and caged the Panther offense for most of the match. Though both teams fired 12 total shots, Wesleyan more than doubled Middlebury in shots on goal, 9-4, and forced the Panthers goalkeeper to make eight saves. Behind one of the best back lines in the ’CAC, veteran goalkeeper Emmett McConnell ’15 kept the Panthers to one goal and made three saves in 110 minutes of play.
“The defense just shut down [Middlebury’s] two dynamic players, [numbers] 9 and 19,” McConnell wrote in an email to The Argus. “We knew 9 was pacey. Spencer Tanaka [’15] did a great job at either intercepting the ball before it got to him, or he dropped off and was patient, waiting until 9 took a heavy touch and stepped in. Meanwhile, [Ben] Bratt [’15] and [Ben] Toulotte [’16] kept 19 quiet by not allowing him any space to turn or run in behind our line. I think he had one shot that game, where he scored last time we played Middlebury. On the left [Danny] Rubenstein [’17] did a good job not letting any services come into our box.”
“We didn’t allow them to connect many passes and made sure not to give their forwards any time on the ball,” Kafina wrote. “This allowed us to dominate possession. In practice prior to Saturday’s game, we practiced switching the side of attack, which we were then able to do very well against Middlebury. By doing so, we kept the ball in their half and found space on the wings (our game plan was to attack their outside backs). We’ve been very good at creating on-goal chances this season and usually have out-numbered our opponent in scoring opportunities.”
Despite solid chances for the Cardinals in the first half, they were unable to find the back of the net. It wasn’t until the 54th minute that Kafina broke the silence and put the Cardinals on the scoreboard with the help of midfielder Brandon Sousa ’16.
“One of Middlebury’s center mids turned over the ball in their defensive third to Brandon Sousa, my roommate last year, who attacked with pace at their back four defenders,” Kafina wrote. “I then made a run behind their back line where Sousa was able to pass me the ball for an open shot around the penalty spot.”
Wesleyan held the lead for some time and had several close shots on target after Kafina’s score. But with just over four minutes left in the second period, a Panther scored a goal off of the rebound of a previous shot saved by McConnell, tying the match 1-1 and sending it into overtime.
Both overtime periods were rather uneventful, with the Panthers firing two shots in the first and both teams shooting one each in the second. Still without a victor following overtime, the match went to penalty kicks. Wesleyan got off to a great start when McConnell dove to his right to block Middlebury’s first shot. Both teams then successfully made their next four penalties to make it 4-4 and setting up the Cardinals to take the win home with the final strike. Wesleyan’s shot from Charlie Gruner ’17 was saved. In sudden death, Middlebury made its first shot. Cardinal leading scorer Adam Cowie-Haskell ’18’s shot was stopped, bringing the contest to a close.
“I got myself more hyped than I usually do,” McConnell wrote. “I normally like to be super calm out there. I read the first one pretty easily, but after that I must’ve been too excited and went early or made misjudgments because I only came close on one other one. I like to think PKs are my specialty so I would’ve liked to do better. In the end, one save just isn’t enough most times. 5 PKs in a row is definitely not easy to make.”
“PKs are always hard to deal with,” Kafina wrote. “There is a great amount of pressure for everyone that takes one especially in a NESCAC playoff game. Losing on PKs is always the worst way to end a season.”
Despite a disappointing finish, the Cardinals enjoyed an 8-5-3 overall, 6-4 NESCAC record, in addition to a Quarterfinals spot in the conference playoffs. After a successful season, Kafina had nothing but good things to say about his team and shared one of his most memorable moments of the year.
“My favorite moment was during one practice when we were doing our warm up jog,” Kafina wrote. “All of a sudden Derek [Grammer] [’17] stopped running with the group and stood still while he watched a squirrel about 10 ft. away from him. He then started sprinting after the squirrel…This pursuit went on for about a minute before he slipped and fell. The squirrel then came to pause (probably laughing at Derek) while the rest of the team was dying laughing. I love and cherish all the moments I’ve spent with this team, on and off the field, because we’ve always gotten along so well and treat each other like family.”
Though their season is over, the Cardinals remain positive about their performance and, more importantly, their moments together as a team. In his senior year, McConnell reflected on this fall as well as his career with Wesleyan.
“Overall I think I’m just disappointed by my last game,” he wrote. “However I think last season I played great, and this season I played decently. I think beating Amherst was big for everyone at Homecoming, and for me maybe making a PK save at Roger Williams as the team and individual highlights. Over 4 years the best moments are probably just various memories with the team. I’ve played with six different classes during my time and I think each one was unique and special. Most of all I loved my moments with my fellow seniors over these years. Hanging out with and playing with Omar Bravo, Matt Lynch, Danny Issroff, Matt Hertgen, Bratt, Tanaka, [Bryan] Rice, and even Greg [Shaheen]… who wasn’t here this year. These people made my time special here. Nothing I did means anything without these guys on my side. We’ve been through more than I think any group has, and I can honestly say I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for each of them.”