By Sam Rabuck, Staff Writer
The Wildcats have struggled this season with scoring goals early and capitalizing on opportune chances from inside the box but not on Saturday.
Squaring off against top seeded Hartford University (10-4-5), UNH (8-8-4) came out of the gate strong and scored two goals in the first 12 minutes of play. The Wildcats never looked back from the early lead and defeated Hartford 2-1 to become America East Conference champions for the first time in team history.
“Any time you play in a final, the first 10 or 12 minutes of a championship final are huge,” said head coach Steve Welham. “There was a lot of emotion. There were a lot of up and downs. The first goal is always key, and we were fortunate enough to get back to back goals and push the game in our direction.”
The Hartford Hawks boast back-to-back Striker of the Year award winner Chanel Johnson, but the Wildcats have a weapon of their own: midfielder Brooke Murphy.
In just the second minute of play, senior Caroline Murray took off with the ball and found teammate Meghan Ledwith on the top right side of the box. A crafty touch followed by a dazzling pass from Ledwith towards the top of the box found the feet of Murphy, who was able to control the ball into space. Murphy settled, took aim and fired. The ball soared off of her right foot past the diving Hartford goaltender and into the bottom right hand corner of the net from 22 yards out to give the Wildcats an early 1-0 lead. Ledwith was credited with the assist.
“I’ve been pumped for this game since last Thursday when we won [against UMBC],” Murphy said. “Finally going out there and getting that first goal I knew would be very important. I figured if we can just get that first goal right away, we can control the game, and it lifted a lot of pressure off us when we got that first [goal] that quick.”
Murphy’s play this season has been stellar, and her second minute goal was her 11th of the season, a statistic that is second only to Johnson’s 12-goal mark. And Murphy’s only a freshman.
With the momentum in UNH’s direction, the Wildcats didn’t ease up. Senior Jenna Shaddock broke through Hartford’s defensive line and worked her way into the right corner of the box. Shaddock sent a pinpoint pass that found Murray in front of the net. Using her nifty footwork, Murray deked both the pressing defender and the goaltender and finessed the ball on the ground into the back of the net, giving the Wildcats a commanding 2-0 lead a mere 12 minutes into the game.
“[Shaddock] really did the hard work, so I really wanted to try to finish one for the team,” Murray said. “[The goal] was huge for us; we’re a team that has struggled to score a lot of goals. I don’t think we’ve
we’ve scored two goals that fast all year.”
Just as they have been all year, the Wildcats’ backline anchored by Hannah Blondin, Abby Short and Kirsten O’Neil thwarted opportunity after Hartford opportunity. Whether it was on free kicks, corner kicks or headers, UNH goalkeeper Mimi Borkan stood on her head all game tallying seven saves on her way to being awarded player of the tournament for the 16 saves she made in post-season action.
“It’s fun to play in those games for me when it’s kind of in your face,” Borkan said. “You have to make big saves in big games. My defense made big plays, my forwards made big plays, my midfielders [made big plays], and it’s my job, too. I did everything I always do and kept the ball out of the net.”
Johnson scored a goal in the 89th minute of play, cutting UNH’s lead down to one and giving the Hawks a chance to tie the game. The Hawks had one last chance in regulation, but sophomore Lilly Radack cleared the ball out of danger, and when the final whistle blew, the Wildcats became the conference champions.
“We stayed composed, we believed in each other and that’s been the huge thing about us the whole season long,” Welham said. “We have some very special players, but the strength of the team is the team. There’s a great spirit about us.”
With the win the Wildcats earned a spot to play in the NCAA Division 1 Regionals, but the opponent would not be revealed until the Monday following the game at 4:30 p.m.
At the selection show, the excitement was palpable. Not even the shortage of pizza could keep the smiles off the faces of the UNH women’s soccer team as the players and coaching staff sat in the Whittemore Center Skybox Lounge waiting for their opponent in the NCAA Regionals to be revealed.
As 4:30 p.m. came, a live feed to the NCAA Selection Show on a projector displayed the Wildcats’ next test — the UConn Huskies. The game will be played this Saturday at 5 p.m. in Storrs, Conn.
“It means a lot to the entire women’s soccer organization here at UNH,” senior co-captain Meghan Ledwith said. “We’re just so happy and ecstatic to get in this position.”
UConn is 13-4-5 on the season and defeated the University of South Florida 3-2 in penalty kicks on Saturday to claim the American Athletic Conference Championship.
UNH has not yet faced UConn this season.
“The strategy is for us to continue play to our game,” Welham said. “We’re going to watch some film, we’ll do some homework on them and come up with a game plan. We have to play our game and not get away from what’s made us successful.”
Scoring first will be the key to success for the Wildcats heading into Saturday’s contest, as UNH has yet to lose a game this season after doing so. In last Saturday’s America East Championship victory over Hartford, UNH scored twice in the first fifteen minutes. Bearing that in mind, Welham touched on the importance of his team’s ability to replicate the energy and zeal that was present against Hartford.
“There’s so much energy and so much excitement [in the post season] if you can capitalize early that’s amazing,” Welham said. “If that could happen again, we’ll take it. The most important thing is to be consistent the whole way through the game and give them everything we can right out of the gate. If we can knock [UConn] early, that would be fantastic.”
Senior co-captain Jenna Shaddock described the battle the team has endured the past few years, as UNH has seen three different coaching staffs in as many seasons.
“It feels like everything’s paying off right now,” Shaddock said. “It’s just a sigh of relief that all of the hard work has finally paid off.”
“We’ve faced a lot of adversity this year, and we just stuck through it,” Ledwith said. “Everybody motivates each other and that’s what we do. We keep our heads forward.”
UNH has not lost a game since Oct. 12, and the Wildcats have outscored opponents 8-3 during the stretch.
“We’re just taking it one day at a time and one game at a time,” Shaddock said. “It’s been working for us. We’ve been staying loose and staying focused, and we’re ready for the next game.”