After losing their fourth game in a row at Amherst last Saturday and their fifth on Tuesday on the road to Connecticut College to finish the regular season, the men’s soccer team still qualified for the NESCAC tournament, but only by the skin of their teeth. The Cardinals finished their NESCAC campaign at 3-6-1, holding onto the eighth and last seed in the NESCAC postseason only thanks to a 0-0 draw between two of the conference’s bottom feeders, Bates and Colby.
A Bobcat win on Wednesday would have handed the final spot to them and ended the Cardinals season. So Cardinal fans became Colby fans this week, as they hoped and prayed that the perennial NESCAC punching bag could bail out the Cards’ atrocious, if at times unlucky, conclusion to the season. Of the five straight losses, only Saturday’s blowout to Amherst came by multiple goals.
Indeed, though, last weekend’s loss to the Lord Jeffs was more than just another disappointing NESCAC loss and bitter defeat to a Little Three opponent; it was an absolutely remarkable and unprecedented collapse for the Cardinals. The 5-0 defeat was an ignominious one, the worst defeat of Head Coach Geoff Wheeler’s 17-year tenure at the team’s helm.
Wesleyan were caught on their heels within the first five minutes, as Amherst’s Andrew Orozco smashed a volley to the left of Cardinal goalkeeper Brian Harnett ’18 to open the scoring.
Despite the early goal, the Cardinals were very much in the game throughout the remainder or the first half and into the beginning of the second. The Lord Jeffs’ systematic and heavily physical style of play, which resulted in a whopping seven yellow cards in the game, hindered the Cardinals, who certainly were at a disadvantage in the game’s numerous set piece situations.
The Redbirds’ second-half deterioration came down to three crucial moments. The first occurred just over 10 minutes into the second half, after wonderful service into the penalty area found the head of Adam Cowie-Haskell ’18 beyond the far post. Cowie-Haskell headed the ball back across the face of the goal, where a streaking Charlie Gruner ’17 nearly got on the end of Cowie-Haskell’s header, if not for some dogged Amherst defending that sent Gruner crashing into the back of the goal as the ball bounced out of play to safety.
The second crucial moment came just after the first, as Hans Erickson ’16 took down an Amherst attacker going away from goal in the Cardinals’ penalty area, setting up Amherst’s second goal, and their first from the penalty spot on the day.
The Cardinals gave up another goal just five minutes later, as an Amherst attacker smashed another unchallenged effort from the top of the area to make it 3-0. With frustration and emotion already running high for the Cardinals, Brandon Sousa ’16 was sent off after a second yellow card in the match to put the proverbial nail in the coffin. Down to ten men, the Cardinals never gave up spirit but could not keep up with a cold and skillful Amherst side in front of a massive homecoming crowd. The home side followed the third with another conversion from the penalty spot, and then a final goal from open play.
There was absolutely no time to wallow in the defeat; going into Tuesday’s match away at Connecticut College, the Cardinals needed a win to lock up the 8th spot in the NESCAC tournament. Nonetheless, in many ways it still looked like they had not yet recovered from the weekend’s humiliation in Amherst.
The team looked flat throughout proceedings in New London, creating very few chances and failing to get in behind the Camel’s backline on more than a couple of sparse occasions. The Cardinals gave up another penalty just under 60 minutes into the match that proved the difference, and it was with horror that the Birds amassed a fifth consecutive defeat.
Fortunately, Bates, who, with a win against Colby Wednesday night in Waterville, ME, would have ended the Cardinals’ season, failed to find the back of the net through 110 minutes of play, and the 0-0 draw was just enough for the Cardinals to hold onto the last playoff spot, only to be matched up against the Lord Jeffs in Amherst again this Saturday.
“First of all I think morale is good,” said Nick Jackson ’18, ahead of Saturday’s clash. “Colby tying last night felt like a win for us and I think throughout the past five games we have, unfortunately, been taught a lesson: winning games in the NESCAC won’t be easy. Now I think we know what it will take.”
But Wesleyan doesn’t fear facing the team that handed it one of its worst losses in recent memory.
“As far as going against Amherst, I think it is the perfect matchup,” Jackson said. “They just smacked us and they will be feeling pretty confident. We want to prove a point that the last game was a fluke and it won’t happen again.”
Although the end of the season and, in particular, the Cardinals’ match against Amherst were particularly regrettable, if the Cardinals can put together a quality performance Saturday against an undefeated Amherst, that could give new life to a season that has long been teetering on the edge.