WILLIAMSTOWN — Ready, able and willing.
That's how the Williams College women's soccer team looks at this weekend's trip to play for an NCAA Division III championship.
"After we came back from Thanksgiving break, all we talked about was 'Wow, I can't wait to be on a plane with everyone, in our cow suits and on our way to Kansas City to play in the national semifinals, and hopefully the finals,' " Williams co-captain Mai Mitsuyama said Tuesday before the Ephs had their final practice on Cole Field.
"That's all I've been able to talk about," she said. "That's the focus right now."
Coach Michelyne Pinard's players wore their cow suits — more like a fleece pullover with spots — as a sign of togetherness. The Ephs will need to be together this weekend, because this Final Four promises to be extraordinarily difficult.
The first game of the national semifinal doubleheader features top-ranked Messiah College playing No. 4 Washington-St. Louis on Friday at noon (EST). Williams, the No. 6 team in the nation, will take the pitch at the Swope Soccer Center in Kansas City, Mo., at 2:30 p.m. against ninth-ranked Centre.
Not only are four of the top 10 teams in the country playing this weekend, but all four were the No. 1 teams in their respective regions. Williams was No. 1 in New England, Messiah was No. 1 in the Mid-Atlantic, Washington was No. 1 in the Central Region and Centre was No. 1 in the South Atlantic Region.
Whichever teams get out of Friday's semifinal round will play Saturday for the national championship.
"Any time you go to a Final Four, you're expecting a great team, regardless of throughout the year if their record shows they're a No. 1 ranked team," Pinard said. "The Centre team is very good. They're very organized, they're very technical, they're very tactical. They have a couple of great finishers.
"We know we're up for a big game on Friday and we're excited for the challenge. "
For her part, Mitsuyama said she's more than ready to participate in a second Final Four, and if possible, more excited about this year's trip.
"Last year was kind of like, oh my goodness, we weren't expected to make it. It was a surprising accomplishment in itself," said the senior midfielder from Natick. "This year, we were able to overcome much with a target on our backs [from] being a team that made it to the National Championship last year."
This is the third time Williams (19-1-1) has reached a Final Four. The Ephs hosted in 1999 and lost to Macalester (Minn.) College in the semifinals. Last year, the Ephs beat Johns Hopkins 1-0 in the semifinal and played to a 0-0 draw with Lynchburg before falling 4-3 in penalty kicks for the championship.
Centre (21-1-1) is in the Final Four for the first time in program history. The Colonels from Danville, Ky., set a school record with 21 wins. It's the first Final Four trip for any team at Centre since the women's basketball team went in 1990.
The Colonels are led by junior forward Destinie Graves, who scored more goals this year (26) than Williams gave up as a team (23). Senior midfielder Alex Combs had 13 goals and sophomore midfielder Nancy Ingham had 12. Graves scored three goals in a 4-0 Elite Eight win over Calvin
"We've been comparing them to Middlebury, to be honest," said Pinard. "Middlebury was a team with dynamic scorers athletically. My sense is this is going to be a really great matchup."
The Colonels have outscored their opponents 69-20 this year and had 13 shutouts.
The Ephs will be led by forwards Kriste Kirshe and Audrey Thomas. The juniors each have 12 goals. Freshman Kristina Alvarado had two goals in the NCAA win over Stevens Institute of Technology and has four on the season, along with senior Crystal Lewin.
Eph goalkeeper Tressa Palcheck brings a 0.43 goals-against average and 12 shutouts into the game. And should the contest go into penalty kicks, freshman Olivia Barnhill could be called on. She stopped all three PKs in the Elite Eight contest against William Smith.
Williams assistant coach Alex McInturf was with the team last year and this year. Last year, however, she was a player so her perspective is a bit different.
"I'm experiencing an incredible sense of deja vu, actually, because that was my last memory of Williams soccer," said McInturf. "It's different for me in terms of how relaxed I feel about it. I think I feel a little more relaxed because I'm not actually playing in it.
"I'm equally as excited this year because I've got to watch this team develop. I know my class is really, really supportive of this. I just hope that we have a little bit better of an outcome."