BURLINGTON, VT. — Most of the time the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Wildcats (6-8-2, 4-4-1) are a stout, defensive force to be reckoned with. Most of the time they can stop anyone in front of them, as they have four shutouts in their last six games and only one goal allowed during October. Most of the time.  

Thursday afternoon’s match against the University of Vermont (UVM) Catamounts (10-5-1, 7-2-0) was the exception to that norm as the Wildcats lost by a final of 3-0 in their regular season finale. This is the first time since Oct. 14, 2018, that New Hampshire has allowed three goals in a game. While the loss wasn’t enough to drop the ‘Cats out of the playoffs, it erased their hopes of reaching the second seed and drops them to sixth in the America East Championship.  

What seemed like a harmless deflection off UNH sophomore Emily Bini proved to be fatal. The deflection led to a Catamount corner and a gorgeous service from Vermont senior Natalie Durieux that soared into the penalty box. As the ball traveled, UVM senior midfielder Alyssa Oviedo took four strides, jumped, past a UNH defender, and found the back of the net for the game’s first goal.  

It was a rout from then on. Three minutes later, UVM senior Alexa Mihale headed another shot thanks to another beautiful feed that escaped UNH senior goalkeeper Cat Sheppard to double the Vermont lead.  

“The game of soccer can go in waves of momentum, and they were really able to capitalize on those moments, and that was the difference of the game,” said UNH head coach Steve Welham.  

Things could’ve been even worse for the Wildcats. Following a tackle from UNH sophomore defender Logan Nicholson roughly seven minutes later, Mihale was awarded a penalty kick. Welham agreed with the call, although he thought Bini should have been awarded a penalty kick earlier.  

Welham’s protests mattered little, however. The four-year midfielder took a few steps back before ripping a shot towards Sheppard’s near post. New Hampshire’s goalkeeper responded to the threat by sliding to her right and punching the ball with her gloves and putting it back into play.  

The danger didn’t end there, however. The ball found the foot of a Vermont attacker who fired an awkward shot that could’ve found the back of the net if not for Sheppard sticking her leg out to stop the attempt. 

The Catamounts missed a plethora of other chances to run up the score. Oviedo executed a shot toward the far post a bit too perfectly, as the shot doinked off the woodwork. If not for two more terrific saves by Sheppard the game could’ve been 5-0.  

These scenes were emblematic of the whole night. Vermont storming down the field, attacking the net, and forcing the Wildcats defense or Sheppard to ensure the game was still within reach for the offense.  

“It was down to execution in a certain moment of the game on the field, and that was it. We didn’t execute what we needed to do,” said Welham.   

The question for Welham isn’t how his team lost, it’s how they respond to their worst statistical loss of the season. 

“They got a taste of the playoffs basically last night, where it’s not the playoffs but, yes, it is. Every play is going to count. How you start the game, and how you finish the game is important,” Welham said.  

UNH will get to respond Sunday in Newark against the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) Highlanders (7-10-1, 5-3-1). The two teams met previously this season, UNH was shutout 1-0 even though they’d outshot the Highlanders 18-5. To come away with the victory Sunday, Welham said they’ll need to spread apart the defense to open up lanes.  

“We have to stretch them out, get them moving side to side of the field, not just north and south. That’s the game [NJIT] wants to play, so we’ve got to stretch them out,” Welham repeated. “Create chances and we feel if we can get one, one can become two and three because this team is going to have to play forward.”  

Welham went on to point out the ease with which NJIT can shut down their opponents once they have a lead, much like they did earlier this season against the Wildcats.  

Even as the sixth seed, Welham likes his chances, pointing at how crowded the middle of the conference was and his central belief that while UNH is sixth, only three points separate them from the third and fourth seeds. 

“I feel like it’s wide open. It’s very even. That’s probably the best way to say this, I think it’s a very even America East Championship this year.” 

Photo courtesy of Dave O’Brien