Area players help Williams women reach NCAA D-III soccer Final Four

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Ilana Albert got on an airplane with her Williams College women's soccer teammates on Wednesday morning, bound for the NCAA Division III Final Four.

The freshman from Pittsfield High School admitted that it was still a little hard to wrap her arms around the fact that she has played for a team that won a conference regular-season and tournament title, and won four NCAA tournament games.

"It's kind of a ridiculous freshman year," Albert said with a big smile. "I couldn't have asked for a better freshman year honestly."

Albert is one of four first-year players who have seen extensive time for coach Michelyne Pinard's Ephs, who will play Hardin-Simmons on Friday in a Final Four game at Greensboro, N.C.

The Ephs (20-1-1) will take on Hardin-Simmons (23-0-0) in the 1:30 p.m., EST, second game of the Final Four doubleheader. In the first game, Chicago (21-1-0) will play The College of New Jersey (21-0-1). The winners will play Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

Albert is also one of three first-year players who grew up in the lengthy shadow of Williams College. Georgia Lord was last year's Gatorade soccer player of the year in Vermont, playing at Burr and Burton in Manchester. Victoria Laino came to Williams from Charlotte, Vt., via Zurich, Switzerland.

Pinard always looks for the best possible players when she recruits. Having three from areas so close to Williams is an added bonus.

"It's really neat," said Pinard. "I think they've had more access to Williams College and Williams women's soccer than most first-years. I think it allowed them to make the transition much more quickly. It not only helped them, but it helped their classmates, and it helped the team.

"Whenever first-years are comfortable and quickly ready to go, it helps our cause."

All three of the area newcomers play in the midfield. Laino played in all 22 regular-season games for Williams, starting 21 of them. She is fourth on the team with five goals, and she had an assist. Two of her goals were game-winners.

Albert got on the field for 21 of the Ephs 22 games heading into the Final Four. She had a goal and an assist this year, starting in 13 games. Right now, she is subbing in.

So is Lord, who played in 19 games and started in two games. The Burr and Burton product is still looking for her first collegiate goal.

"I can't speak for everyone, but I don't think a lot of us were expecting to play as much as we did," Lord said. "I think that what made it easy for us to transition [to college play] was the older players, welcoming us and showing us this new system.

"It doesn't even feel like we're freshmen on the team."

Laino is from a little farther away than either Lord or Albert, but her Eph connections are solid. Her father Peter skied and played soccer for Mike Russo at Williams. Her mother Libby went to Williams and her grandfather, Dr. Peter Laino, also went to Williams.

"It's been really easy, the transition, because of the older players have just encouraged us to go out and play," said Laino. "Don't think about the system, don't be nervous and just go out and play your game. That made it a lot easier for us to go out and play freely and confidently."

All three players don't play like freshmen. All three have said that getting into the system and playing effectively has been a gradual process. For her part, Laino said that practice helped a lot.

"Practices are just as competitive as the games themselves," she said. "That's really helped, that we have such a competitive team that practices are just like games."

For Albert, it's about a 20-mile drive from Pittsfield to Williamstown. Lord's trip was about 40 miles.

"I just loved it. Manchester and Williams, the communities are very similar. One's a small school and Manchester is a small town," Lord said. "When I was on campus, it felt like home already. I practiced with the team a couple of times last spring. Everyone was so nice and so welcoming. Everyone gave their all, even without Michelyne there. I wanted to be in a competitive environment."

Every member of Pinard's team was excited and ready to meet the challenge of the Hardin Simmons women head on. For Albert, playing for the "home town" team on the biggest stage is something she said she's ready for.

"It's pretty unbelievable, but it's pretty nice," she said. "I'll take it."

Howard Herman can be reached at hherman@berkshireeagle.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, and 413-496-6253.


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