LOWELL, MASS. — The last time the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Wildcats (6-8-4, 4-4-2) made the America East Championship was in 2014, following back-to-back victories in penalty kicks.
Seven years later, history seems to be repeating itself. Last Sunday, UNH beat the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) Highlanders (7-10-2) in penalties to advance. Thursday night, UNH won in penalties once again, beating the UMass Lowell (UML) Riverhawks (8-6-3, 5-3-2), sending the Wildcats back to the America East Championship.
Fictitious detective and famous pessimist Rust Cohle was right, “time is a flat circle.”
It all came down to the tenth round and the Wildcats’ captains. Graduate student Casey Peterson stepped onto the turf of Cushing Field Complex needing to score. The last four UNH shooters had all scored to prolong penalties. Now it was up to her. The last time she was in this situation was the previous week against NJIT when she roofed her shot over the net.
But Peterson wasn’t thinking about last week’s miss as she inched closer Lowell’s first-year goalkeeper Lisa Sjögren. Instead, she was thinking about Sjögren’s inability to stop high shots.
“I saw that a bunch of the previous girls were going high, and I knew that,” Peterson said. “I knew my shot the week before went high as well, and if like if you hit it as hard as you can into like the upper areas there’s not a goalie that’s going to get it. Cat [Sheppard] always tells me just lean over it and shoot as hard as you possibly can, and those are the hardest PKs to save.”
Peterson heeded Sheppard’s advice and uncorked a scorching shot off her right foot toward the top left of the net. Sjögren attempted to make the save but could only watch the ball whizz over her head.
The responsibility then shifted to UNH senior goalkeeper Cat Sheppard. Sheppard wasn’t a stranger to the do-or-die nature of shootouts. She’d been in the net during the match with NJIT, and while the moment inspired a sense of déjà vu, it also inspired a certain dread.
“I had a little bit of experience from the NJIT game, which is a little bit nice, but I’m sick of us being dramatic and going to PKs,” she said.
Sheppard could halt the dramatics there if she could make a save against Lowell’s senior midfielder Olivia Sandahl. As the Swedish native approached the net Sheppard said she offered a tell of sorts.
“She was kind of eyeing the left side, and I was kind of like ‘Mmm, I think she’s going left,’ so that was kind of my gut feeling,” Sheppard said.
Sandahl didn’t deviate from her plans, aiming the shot low to the left. As the ball neared its destination, Sheppard stretched out. The ball bounced off her gloves and onto the grass to win the game unbeknownst to Sheppard.
“My immediate emotion was, I wasn’t completely sure that we had won,” she said. “I thought I’d have to take another one. I had forgotten if we went first or second. So, I was kind of walking up and they were running at me and I was like ‘Okay, yeah, we definitely won.’”.
“Wow,” said UNH head coach Steve Welham about the win. “I’ve never been part of a shootout that went 10 rounds, I don’t really remember the last time I’ve seen one.”
Despite all the similarities brewing between the 2014 run and this most recent one, Welham lamented that every game, let alone every season is its own beast.
“There are some similarities there, but keep in mind as a program, and as a coaching staff, that every game and every year distinctively different from the one prior or even years prior,” Welham said. “So, there’s a wonderful sense of similarity and chemistry, and the cohesion of the team is there. There’s a wonderful vibe about the team. They’ve talked about a little bit as well already, but you’ve got to go and execute.”
One of the few differences punctuating this year’s run will be the Wildcats’ final opponent. In 2014, they were tasked with the No. 1 seeded University of Hartford. This Sunday, the Wildcats will play another No. 1 seed: the University of Vermont (11-5-1, 7-2-0) for the second time in as many weeks to determine who will be the America East Champion.
When the two played last on Oct. 28, UNH was thrashed 3-0 for their worse loss of the season. Yet Welham said this loss will provide some confidence and clarity to the Wildcats.
“We probably didn’t play our best game of the year. There’s no question about it, probably one of our poorer performances of the year. I think that’s probably giving us a little bit of confidence knowing we can do a lot better and understanding what worked and what did not work against them,” Welham said.
To avenge that loss, Welham said the team will have to do pivot towards a different look. He pointed to higher starting points and more aggression to start the game.
Likewise, Sheppard pointed to that as things the team needs to focus on, “[Vermont] definitely have a lot of their strength moving forward. They are a good team when you let them have the ball and let them press you. So, we definitely need to combat that with starting out on the front and starting out pressing and staying high.”
Welham said there is a sentiment of revenge motivating the team heading into the championship.
“Yes, we want to avenge that loss, but we also want to play better,” Welham said. “The result wasn’t what we wanted, but now it’s an opportunity to put things straight, to play a better game, and have a better outcome as well.”
“It’s kind of funny,” Peterson said. “We’ve been calling this run our revenge tour. We’re going after all the teams that kind of pegged us back before. So, I guess there is a kind of revenge in a way, I just want to do everything possible to help us win, and I’m so grateful that I have this group of girls behind me, pushing me. I mean, it takes 26.”
The Wildcats look to close out their self-titled revenge tour with a championship this Sunday when they travel to Virtue Field in Vermont for a 2 p.m. kickoff.
Photo courtesy of Bob Ellis