In a rough-and-tumble conference like the NESCAC, not every matchup can be a thrilling affair, studded with quality and class. The Cardinals’ victory at Hamilton on Saturday was one such standard spectacle, but the 2-0 win still came as a crucial NESCAC victory for Wesleyan’s postseason aspirations.
Although the Redbirds certainly fancied their chances against a considerably weaker opponent, dispatching a scrappy but disciplined Hamilton side would required an efficient performance. In fact, games like these often require heightened focus and preparation. They certainly have in the past two seasons in Wesleyan’s matchups with Hamilton. A 1-0 shocker on the road in New York in 2013 was narrowly avenged on Jackson Field in 2014, courtesy of a Wesleyan penalty in the dying moments of double overtime.
The first half was a bit pedestrian from both sides, perhaps partly due to some inclement weather. Hamilton had the edge in shots, forcing Cardinal goalkeeper Jonas Katkavich ’17 into two saves from seven shots overall. Wesleyan had one attempt on target from four total during the period. Despite the lack of clear goalscoring chances in the half, the Cards dominated possession and never let Hamilton look particularly threatening.
The crucial breakthrough came just five minutes into the second half, as the duo that would combine for both goals came together for the first time. Max Jones ’16 found Chris Kafina ’16 with a through ball from the right side toward the top of the penalty area, where Kafina cut around Hamilton’s keeper and slotted it home comfortably. Hamilton fought back with resolve for the rest of the half, but still lacked the craft required to generate genuine chances.
Wesleyan ceded some of its dominance in possession to Hamilton as the final minutes approached, but the Continentals became vulnerable on the break as they desperately pursued the equalizer. In the 88th minute, the dynamic duo on the day combined once again. With the game still very much in the balance, Jones dinked the ball to Kafina from the byline on the right. The striker peeled off his defender at the back post to finish with his head into the bottom left corner. Kafina’s two goals of the day pushed him to six goals and two assists this year, putting the senior forward at fourth in all of NESCAC in the combined goal-assist statistic at 14 points, and tied for the top spot on goals.
To put a cherry on top of a strong week in NESCAC, Cardinals fans were delighted on Sunday to see that nationally-ranked Tufts received the defeat that Wesleyan could not hand them last Wednesday. Hamilton battled back from a one-goal first half deficit to equalize in the 82nd minute, and found the game-winner just over a minute into double overtime.
With Saturday’s victory behind them, the Cardinals look ahead to the busiest week on the schedule. Wesleyan kicks off the first of its three games this week on the road at Salve Regina University, whom Wesleyan easily defeated 4-0 at home in 2014. With due respect to the Seahawks, who sit at 3-7-1 and have dropped five of their past six, Tuesday should be a good opportunity for the Cardinals to rack up the goals, and get a solid number of players to see playing time.
After that final non-conference matchup, the Cardinals prepare for another two important NESCAC fixtures at home on Jackson Field. Saturday’s match will see Wesleyan face Colby, who are struggling in the NESCAC this year with a 1-4-1 conference record. However, as is always true of league matchups, there are no easy games; even a floundering Colby side managed to take down perennial heavyweights Williams this season in double overtime.
The Cardinals then have a quick turnaround, with a matchup against Middlebury College on Sunday morning. Unlike Colby, Middlebury has started the season brightly, sitting at second in the NESCAC with a record of 3-1-1 in conference play. The Panthers also have three players in the top ten in points in the NESCAC. Adam Glaser sits in first with six goals and five assists, while fellow juniors Greg Conrad and Deklan Robinson are tied for ninth in the category with three goals and two assists.
Despite Middlebury’s stature this season, the Cardinals matchup Sunday is personal. It will be a real grudge match, since the Panthers were the undoing of the Cardinals in 2014. Last season, after beating Amherst for the first time since 2007, the Cardinals lost to Middlebury twice in the team’s last four games of the season. First, Middlebury dismantled the Cardinals in Vermont, sending the visitors home discouraged after a 3-1 loss. And precisely one week later, the Cardinals faced Middlebury in the first round of the NESCAC tournament. The Birds led 1-0 for most of the second half, before a last gasp equalizer from the Panthers sent the match to overtime, which saw no goals, leading to the dreaded penalty shootout. Sadly, the Cardinals’ fifth and sixth penalty takers couldn’t find the twine, which gave Middlebury the victory and ended Wesleyan’s season.