Williams College women's soccer meets Hardin-Simmons in NCAA Division III Final Four

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All of the preliminaries are ending. It is time to play for a soccer national championship.

The Williams College women are in Greensboro, N.C., and have an afternoon date with Hardin-Simmons in an NCAA Division III national semifinal game.

"We're ready to play," Williams coach Michelyne Pinard said earlier in the week. "It's been a long wait since our last game. I think this team is just thrilled to be playing in December, and can't wait to get going."

Williams (20-1-1) will play the Cowgirls from Abilene, Texas (23-0-0) in the second game of the semifinal doubleheader at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro's UNCG Soccer Stadium.

The winner of the second game will play the winner of the first game between the University of Chicago (21-1) and The College of New Jersey (21-0-1). The first game of the doubleheader will start at 11 a.m., EST, while Williams and Hardin-Simmons are scheduled to start at 1:30 p.m.

The championship game will be Saturday at 2:30 p.m., EST.

For those counting, the four teams participating in this weekend's Final Four come to Greensboro with a combined 85-2-2 record, have a combined 80 NCAA Division III tournament appearances, 24 Final Four appearances and six NCAA D-III championships.

All four teams came into the tournament ranked in the top 10 nationally. Williams was sixth in both the National Soccer Coaches Association of America and D3soccer.com Top 25, Hardin-Simmons was No. 3 in the NSCAA poll and fifth in D3soccer.com, Chicago was fourth in the NSCAA poll and third in D3soccer.com, while TCNJ was No. 1 in both national polls.

Hardin-Simmons enters play with a 45-match unbeaten streak. The Cowgirls (the men's teams are called the Cowboys) played Washington-St. Louis to a scoreless draw in a national semifinal last year, but Washington advanced 2-1 on penalty kicks. In the NCAA, those games go onto a record as a draw. Only when the national championship game is decided on PKs does the game get registered as a win or a loss.

Williams' opponent, while nationally ranked, got to Greensboro the hard way. Williams, TCNJ and Chicago all hosted their regionals. Hardin-Simmons went to Geneva, N.Y., to play in a regional at William Smith College. The Cowgirls beat Carnegie Mellon and Ohio Northern to reach the Final Four.

Williams defeated Cal Lutheran and Johns Hopkins on Cole Field.

Hardin-Simmons is a team that Williams has never played, so Pinard and her staff had to watch a lot of video to prepare the Ephs for the challenge.

Hardin-Simmons is quite the offensive machine. The Cowgirls scored 110 goals, scoring seven goals or more seven times. That included a 13-0 victory over Bellhaven College.

The top threat is junior midfielder Kenne Kessler. Kessler leads the nation with a school and conference record 37 goals. That is 18 fewer goals than Williams has scored this year. Senior back Kirsten Parrish is second on the team with 14 goals. Parrish takes corner kicks and many restarts. Most of her goals came on set pieces.

"Obviously, playing a team we've never seen, there's lots of unknowns. I think we just keep doing what we've been doing," Pinard said. "I don't think we change much. I don't think we have to change much. I think our goal is to defend as high on the field as we possibly can.

"If we do that well, I think we will limit her chances and that will help our cause."

The Cowgirls have outscored opponents 110-7, thanks in large part to junior goalkeeper Caitlin Christiansen. Christiansen has a .326 goals-against average, which is fifth in the nation.

Eph keeper Olivia Barnhill will have to rise to the challenge of that high-powered offense for Hardin-Simmons.

The junior from New York City's goals-against average is nearly as stellar as Christiansen's. Barnhill's average is 0.37 goals-per game. She has 10 shutouts, and is currently sporting a scoreless streak of 391 minutes and 44 seconds.

Hardin-Simmons coach Marcus Wood will have to figure out a way for his offense to crack a stout Williams back line that starts in goal and extends out to the defense corps that is led by NESCAC player of the year Danielle Sim.

On offense, sophomore forward Alison Lu has a team-best 11 goals, followed by senior forward Natasha Albaneze's nine. Lu and Albaneze have a team-leading four game-winning goals while three of reserve forward Kristina Alvarado's four goals are game-winners.

"I think we are" playing the best soccer the Ephs have all season, Pinard said. "I think Hopkins pointed out a couple of defensive holes we needed to tighten up. Other than that, I think we're moving the ball as well as we've ever moved it. I think we're creating, I think we're scoring and I think we've tightened up defensively.

"I'm excited to be playing and can't wait to see our women compete."

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


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