Kicking (and screaming) to first MAAC title

The Broncs celebrate after scoring the winning penalty kick. The team will travel to Seattle to play Washington on Nov. 14.
The Broncs celebrate after scoring the winning penalty kick. The team will travel to Seattle to play Washington on Nov. 14.

By Thomas Albano

The women’s soccer team won the 2014 MAAC Championship, the first MAAC title in the program’s history, on Nov. 9 following a tight battle with Fairfield that was decided by penalty kicks.

The fourth-seeded Broncs (12-5-3, 5-3-2 MAAC) had to pull out two upsets on Monmouth’s home turf, Heese Field at The Great Lawn, in order to get the historic achievement. They first did battle with top-seeded Monmouth on Nov. 7 in a MAAC semifinal matchup, and won 1-0. That earned them the chance to face second-seeded Fairfield. After ending both regulation and overtime 1-1, the match went to penalty kicks, which Rider won 5-4.

As a result of the conference title win, the team will be participating in its first-ever NCAA Tournament.

Head Coach Drayson Hounsome said he could not be more proud of his young team, which only has five juniors and seniors.

“When 23 individuals work together, set a goal and then tirelessly work for 94 days to achieve that goal, it is incredibly rewarding and powerful,” Hounsome said.

In the Broncs’ semifinal matchup, the Hawks (14-5, 9-1 MAAC) had a lot more control on the offensive end. Rider was outshot 22-8, and had four fewer penalty kicks in the match. However, Monmouth could not find the back of the net even once during the whole 90 minutes.

The Broncs’ sophomore goalkeeper, Bethany-May Howard, was essential in preventing Monmouth from scoring and in furthering the team’s success in the playoffs. Howard was named the Championship Most Valuable Player.

Monmouth forced Howard to play at her best in the semifinal, and she made nine total saves throughout the match.

Despite having fewer shots, Rider was able to get the lone goal of the contest. That goal came towards the end of the 40th minute when sophomore midfielder Priscilla Santos got one past the Monmouth goalkeeper to give the Broncs a 1-0 lead.

That was the only goal Rider would need to upset the top seed, host of the semifinals and championship rounds, and advance to the MAAC Championship game for the first time since 2004.

Freshman midfielder Ellie Smith said she felt the pressure prior to the championship game, but did not let it bother her.

“We were nervous but this was natural on such a big occasion,” Smith said. “It was the biggest game of our lives. However, we used those nerves to make us work as hard as possible to achieve our goal of qualification.”

The final match of the MAAC Tournament against the second-seeded Stags (14-4-3, 8-2 MAAC) started off slow, with little action on either side. Fairfield had five shots and three corner kicks in the first half, while the Broncs had four shots and only a single corner kick. Howard had two saves in the half, and her counterpart, Fairfield’s senior goalkeeper Kathleen Early, had one. Neither goalkeeper allowed a goal in the first half.

Things changed during the second half of the match. Rider got its only goal in regulation in the 63rd minute when sophomore forward Hollie Kelsh scored with an assist from Smith.

The game then became a figurative tug-of-war, as the Stags fought to get a goal within the remaining portion of the game to tie things up. Meanwhile, the Broncs were attempting to keep possession in order to extend their lead and hold on for the championship win.

Unfortunately for Rider, a Fairfield goal was scored in the 83rd minute by junior back Karolyn Collins for a tie at 1 each.

The game was sent to a first overtime period. After little action occurred in that time, it was sent to a second overtime period as well. The Broncs had three corner kicks and a shot in that second overtime, while the Stags had a single corner kick and header shot. All were unsuccessful, and the game was sent to penalty kicks.

Smith did not mind having to go the distance in order to achieve a championship.

“It was just part of the game that we knew may happen,” Smith said. “We practice penalty kicks in training. I think we put our penalties away very professionally and calmly.”

With Fairfield starting the shootout, both teams were successful in their first three attempts. When the fourth round started, the Stags’ senior back Megan O’Brien missed her shot. Santos then scored to give the Broncs a 4-3 lead. After a Fairfield goal to start the next round, it came down to sophomore back Heather Maierle. Maierle was able to find the back of the net, and Rider celebrated its first MAAC Championship.

For Smith, winning the conference title gave her great confidence that choosing to come to the United States and attend Rider to play soccer was the right decision.

“I am very pleased and proud to be part of this wonderfully supportive team,” she said. “It was a very big decision for me to come here from England, but it was the best decision of my life. This is such a great achievement, and I cannot wait for the next few years.”

On Nov. 10, the team held a championship celebration in Alumni Gym, and there the players found out they will be traveling to Seattle to take on Washington on Nov. 14 at 10 p.m. EST in a first-round match.

Now with the team moving on to its first NCAA Tournament, Hounsome believes it is ready for any challenge.

“The team chemistry and energy is outstanding and has definitely helped carry us through the latter stages of the season, especially given the injuries that have been sustained to key players,” he said. “No [women’s soccer] team from the MAAC has ever won a game in the NCAA tournament, so we will prepare and work hard to try and create a little more history for the program next weekend.”

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