The Cardinals fell to Bowdoin on a heartbreaking golden goal in the NESCAC Championship game on Sunday at Middlebury. The 1-0 overtime loss to sixth-seeded Bowdoin ended the Cardinals’ season. Despite being the first eight-seed to reach the final, the Cardinals overall record (8-8-2) was not strong enough to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Bowdoin’s Andrew Jones’ late winner gave the Polar Bears their second NESCAC championship and NCAA tournament appearance in a row.
The Cardinals’ victory in the quarterfinals over undefeated Amherst last week pitted them against Middlebury in the semifinals. The squad was eager for the matchup with Middlebury, after finding themselves on the wrong side of the last three meetings with the tricky Panthers. Indeed, Middlebury had proved the undoing of the Cardinals in recent matchups, having initiated the Cardinal’s five-game losing streak this season and knocked them out in the first round of NESCACs last season.
The Cards were resilient through thick and thin Saturday against the Panthers, just as they had been against Amherst the week before. The game was a characteristic NESCAC dogfight. Dominated by a relentless midfield battle, neither team could totally dictate the pace of the game. Although what has been a strong Middlebury side this season managed eight shots on target to Wesleyan’s five, the Cards finished the match with 11 corners to Middlebury’s one. It was a remarkable even contest, and impossible to call throughout.
Through 90 minutes and two 10-minute overtime periods, however, neither side could find the breakthrough, and the game was destined for penalty kicks. Needless to say, the ensuing minutes were full of shocking moments and riveting suspense.
Wesleyan Head Coach Geoff Wheeler made a bold move by putting current defender Nick Jackson ’18, a former goalkeeper in West Ham United’s academy in London, in goal for the shootout. This move calls to mind the Dutch manager Louis van Gaal and his famous decision to change goalkeepers before a shootout in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Middlebury’s Kirk Horton blasted the penalty taken by either side over the bar, which proved the difference in the shootout. Middlebury’s Greg Sydor had saved Wesleyan’s third penalty, but had jumped off his line to early. It was a heart in mouth scenario, but the referee noticed the infraction gave Hans Erickson ’16 a second chance. The blonde giant calmly slotted the retake past Sydor, preserving Wesleyan’s lead.
The climax came after Wheeler pulled another rabbit out of the hat, putting Dylan Hoy ’17 onto the field to take Wesleyan’s fifth penalty despite the attacking midfielder having not featured in the 110 minutes of regulation and overtime play.
Hoy brought some real class to the shootout, delivering the winning penalty with all the cheekiness one could imagine. Sydor, who had been quick to guess on all four previous Wesleyan penalties, once again guessed and dove early to his left corner, as Hoy, cool as ice, chipped the ball right down the middle over Sydor’s flailing legs.
Wesleyan matched up against Bowdoin after its 2-0 semifinal victory over Connecticut College. The Cards fought hard once again, but with only one goal in their previous four games, the team’s problem in the final was clear as day. After the emotion of the previous day’s victory, the Cardinals’ defense simply could not hold up without any production in the final third.
In the final minutes of regulation, Bowdoin just seemed to be starting to get the better of Wesleyan, despite Adam Cowie-Haskell ’18’s late one-on-one with Bowdoin’s goalkeeper. An exhausted Cardinal defense was performing admirably, but lost focus for a crucial moment in the first period of overtime. Bowdoin’s golden goal came two-and-a-half minutes in, as a set piece from deep in midfield was allowed to bounce through the penalty area to the back post, where Bowdoin’s Andrew Jones left no doubt with a solid first touch and a well-placed dink to the opposite top corner.
Despite the finals loss and the disappointment of not reaching the NCAA National Tournament, the Cardinals certainly have some fond moments to remember from the season.
“It had to be D. Hoy’s game-winning P.K.,” said goalkeeper Eric Jasinski ’17 when asked choose his favorite moment of the season. “It was the literally the craziest thing that ever could’ve happened. It definitely helped that he threw in a little dance in afterwards. Not to the mention that that loss probably cost [Middlebury its] at-large bid to the national tournament.”
Indeed, Wesleyan’s victory ended Middlebury’s season, as the Panthers failed to advance to the NCAA tournament, despite finishing second in the NESCAC.
Chris Kafina ’16, the Cardinals leading goal scorer on the season with seven, added his thoughts on the year after finishing a commendable career at Wesleyan.
“I think that our whole team knew that we had the capability of making a playoff run,” he said. “This season was very up and down and towards the end we were having trouble finding a rhythm. Even though we were right there with every team we faced, we lacked confidence going into the playoffs so it was awesome that we were all able to come together and almost win the ‘CAC.”
Kafina, a contributor in each of his four years on the team, added his thoughts on the what the community has meant to him.
“I’m just glad that I could be a part of this team,” he said. “I love all the guys and the camaraderie and talent made this year one to remember. I’ll always cherish the friendships and memories I made from playing soccer at Wes. Having so many guys have your back, treating you like family, has made my experience here much more enjoyable. For that reason, I can’t be grateful enough.”
Despite a disappointing year record-wise, the Cardinals can be proud of their resilience and quality over the season, which shone through in their NESCAC tournament run. It was truly a Cinderella story. Moreover, the flashes of brilliance Wesleyan showed against Amherst and earlier in the season against Haverford, two DIII powerhouses, might just provide a glimpse of next season’s spectacles, for which the Cardinals will be eager to prepare.