Williams defense will meet Christopher Newport offense in NCAA D-III women's soccer Final Four

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Thanksgiving came at the right time for the Williams College women's soccer team. It gave the defending NCAA Division III champions an extra break between the national quarterfinals and this weekend's Final Four.

"It was a blessing that we didn't have to play last weekend. They needed the time to recover from some injuries that needed to heal," Williams coach Michelyne Pinard said. "I think everyone is not only excited, but ready. I think we're primed to play some of the best soccer of our season."

Pinard and the Ephs are making their third trip to the Final Four in the past four seasons. Williams will play in Friday's doubleheader nightcap against Christopher Newport. In the opener, NESCAC tournament champion Middlebury will play Washington University-St. Louis.

The doubleheader will be played at 5 and 7:45 p.m. at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro's soccer stadium.

The championship game will be played Saturday night at 7.

This Final Four features the two schools that won the last three Division III titles. Williams won last year and in 2015, while Washington was the champion in 2016. That year, WashU beat Messiah in the championship game. Messiah had eliminated Williams in the Elite Eight.

Middlebury and Christopher Newport, meanwhile, are both seeking their first-ever championships.

"I haven't been thinking about it in that way," Pinard said, when a reporter asked her about the resumes of the teams in the Final Four. "I just think whenever you get to this point, the teams are good and you have to be playing your best soccer in order to advance."

How good are the resumes?

Washington was the No. 1 team in the United Soccer Coaches final regular-season Top 25 poll. Middlebury was No. 3 nationally, Williams was No. 5 and Christopher Newport was No. 11. Williams, Christopher Newport and Washington were all top-ranked in their region, while Middlebury was ranked second in New England behind Williams.

"That's what you expect," Christopher Newport coach Dan Weiler said during a phone interview from his Norfolk, Va., office earlier in the week.

"I think you look at the types of teams and the exact teams that have been in the eights and the fours the past 15 years, there are a lot of repeats, and Williams is certainly one of those," he said. "If you get this far, you're going to have to come across one of those teams."

It is new territory for the Captains of Christopher Newport, who are making their first-ever trip to the Final Four. Christopher Newport arrives in Greensboro with a 21-1-0 record, and has outscored its opponents 15-2 in the NCAA Tournament. That included a 10-1 win over The College of Staten Island.

"It's something we've been building for since we took over the program" six full seasons ago, Weiler said. "Slowly, kind of getting better results in the region and then knocking off some nationally-ranked teams in the last two-three years. It felt like we had a really good shot to make a run last year, but we were unfortunate to have big injuries late in the year.

"The team has found a good rhythm [this year], and it's a team that really thrives on those moments that you need to be good in."

Four of Christopher Newport's players were named to the United Soccer Coaches All-South Region. Senior midfielder Gabby Gillis and sophomore forward Riley Cook were named to the first team, while junior defender Keiley McCarthy was named to the second team and sophomore goalkeeper Haley Eiser was a third-team pick.

The Captains scored 76 goals this year and gave up 12. Cook lead the way with 25 goals and six assists, while Gillis had 15 goals and Kristina Toms had 11.

"It's a fun challenge," Williams senior Sarah Hollinger said, before the Ephs left Williamstown on Wednesday. "They're kind of a pretty big team. They play a direct style. We haven't really seen the kind of team that looks like them."

Pinard and assistants Sarah Raymond, Tressa Palcheck and Sarah Brink have watched a lot of tape to prepare the Ephs for the challenge that they'll face on Friday night.

"We don't see a lot of teams that are as powerful and prudent in going forward with so many numbers," said Pinard. "I think it'll be a good challenge for us."

While Christopher Newport scores goals in bunches, this year, Williams has not.

Going into the weekend, the Ephs have scored 35 goals but have given up only 11 for the season. It's the fewest goals scored by Williams since the Ephs netted 32 back in the 2012 season. That team lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It was also the fewest goals given up by Williams since the 2013 season, when the Ephs gave up 14 in a season where they lost in the Sweet 16.

While the Captains have three double-digit goal scorers, Williams only has sophomore forward Sydney Jones, who has 10 goals — eight of them were game winners. Sophomore midfielder Georgia Lord is second with four goals and two game winners.

Senior goalkeeper Olivia Barnhill has a 0.45 goals-against average, 10 shutouts, and was stellar in the penalty kick shootout at William Smith that got Williams' ticket punched to the Final Four.

Four members of the Williams side were named to the USC All-New England squads. Jones and junior back Sarah Kelly were named to the first team, Barnhill was a second-team pick, while junior midfielder Sarah Scire was named to the third team.

The veteran head coach said this is the first time in a while where defense has come before offense.

"This was one of the first times in my career here where that's been the case," Pinard said. "We've really leaned on our backs and on our defending in general to win us games. That's okay. It feels different but that's okay. I think in general, I just think that has meant that our team is a little tougher, a little more resilient than in the past.

"I think that's a really good thing going into the Final Four."

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


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