NEWARK, N.J. — The unstoppable force met the immovable object Saturday afternoon as the defenses of the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Wildcats (6-8-3, 4-4-1) and the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) Highlanders (7-10-2, 5-3-1) waited 110 minutes to see who would falter first.  

Though it took seven rounds of shootouts, UNH escaped the Garden State with a victory. The game-winner came courtesy of first-year forward Meghan Guarente and a wide shot from the Highlanders’ fifth-year forward Tara Walenczyk’s.  

The shootout began with UNH senior Julie Cane facing off against NJIT redshirt junior Molly Saylor. Saylor had been perfect through both regulation and the pair of overtime periods, making four saves on 19 total shots. That flawless streak ended when Cane rifled the ball to the bottom right of the net for the opening tally.  

UNH head coach Steve Welham said when looking for shooters, he wants players who want that chance to try and carve out a moment in the game.  

“The big thing is you want somebody that wants to take one, and it’s okay if somebody doesn’t want to take it. So, you go from there. You want your best shooters, they could be anybody on the team, and that could be the goalkeeper, that could be one of your best players; it could be somebody who doesn’t get to play much,” Welham said. “You want somebody to step up in that moment and finish the chance.  

Saylor’s counterpart, senior goalkeeper Cat Sheppard had been just as good, registering seven saves on 13 shots. Unlike Saylor, Sheppard fended off the first shooter she faced. When NJIT junior Nora O’Connor went high, Sheppard’s hands followed. The ball ricocheted off Sheppard’s mitts, took one bounce off the turf, and could’ve leaked into the back of the net if not for an outstretched effort from Sheppard. 

From there, the two teams fired ball after ball like two ships exchanging cannon firepower in the night. NJIT evened the tally up, scoring on all three of their next chances while UNH only scored twice. As the fifth round began, Sheppard stepped away from the side of the field where she’d waited while her team kicked, and instead stepped in front of the net to kick.  

Welham explained he felt comfortable giving Sheppard the nod in that moment due to her skill.  

“Cat [Sheppard] wants it. She’s very good at them,” Welham said. “We felt comfortable, and she did taking that. We’ll see where that goes in the future. We know she can hit them, and we feel confident with her.” 

Sheppard wasted no time as she blasted the ball towards the left of Saylor. The NJIT netminder flung herself in that direction but overestimated how far she needed to move. All she could do was stick out her black mitts behind her body. When the two made contact, the ball lost all its momentum, falling harmlessly to the ground and counting as a costly miss for UNH.  

It was a miss that could have proven fatal. NJIT junior Lauren Chamberlain would have beat Sheppard and had the game-winner in the fifth round, but her shot hit the top crossbar instead of the back of the net.  

New Hampshire scored on both of their next two kicks, bringing the game down to Walenczyk, whose missed kick was the final blow in the war of attrition.   

“You go from highs to lows within minutes. We had the lead, we surrendered the lead, we were a shot away from being eliminated. That was when you’re like, ‘I cannot believe this is happening’,” said Welham. “One of the hardest things you saw it on the faces of the NJIT players and the coaches, and we’ve been there too. And it’s raw, but it’s real, and you can’t get those emotions anywhere else.”  

It was a war that Welham was proud to see the Wildcats be part of following last week’s disappointing drubbing at the hands of the University of Vermont.  

“It speaks a lot about the mentality of the team to go up and probably not play the best game of the year up in Vermont, not really doing a good job at all,” he said. “So, I think it [Sunday’s game] was a total team effort. The young women really stepped up, really proud of the team to give it a go. We felt we matched up really well.”  

The Wildcats will head to the Cushing Field Complex this Thursday night for their semifinal match with UMass Lowell (8-6-2, 5-3-1). Earlier this season, the Riverhawks defeated the Wildcats in Durham, a game Welham felt his team could have won.  

“It’s always hard to beat somebody twice a year. We felt really hard done by the first time. We had a couple of huge chances that didn’t go our way. That game we felt we could have put it away in the first half,” Welham said.  

Welham said his team will have to convert on those chances Thursday night if they are going to win.  

“Now it’s about taking those chances; you need to take a chance to finish a team off,” explained Welham. “It’s easier said than done, it’s easy to talk about, but that hasn’t happened, and us not giving anything up will be the big thing.”  

Photo courtesy of Lamar Carter