Like a phoenix reborn from the ashes, the women’s soccer team has reveled in their second chance opportunity. Though Swarthmore (18-2-1) will never be able to get back that tough loss against Johns Hopkins in the Centennial Conference Championship, the team is on the verge of something that could be much sweeter – a trip to Kansas City: the setting of this year’s NCAA Final Four.
This past weekend, Swarthmore, the tenth-ranked DIII team in the nation, hosted the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. Needless to say, they took advantage of this privilege. They defeated St. Joseph’s College – Long Island (9-10-2) in the first round by a score of 5-2 and edged out Catholic University (17-3) in the second round by a score of 1-0. Now, they are just two games away from the Final Four.
Though the final score against St. Joseph’s may suggest it was blowout, the game was actually much closer than the score indicated. In fact, it was actually St. Joseph’s who struck first blood. In just the fourth minute, a St. Joseph’s striker broke away from the defense and converted on a one-on-one against Swarthmore goalie Reba Magier ’16.
Although the team could have gone down early, none of the players panicked.
“We definitely were not discouraged at all,” midfielder Miranda Saldivar ’17 said. “We didn’t even come together [to meet] as a team because we knew that we weren’t going to lose the game. We already had the mentality that we were going to [respond] and that we were going to win.”
Just minutes later, it was clear the composed attitude that Saldivar alluded was going to pay off. In the 13th minute, one of the team’s top scorers and first team All-Conference member, Hannah Lichtenstein ’17, took matters into her own hands. After sustained Swarthmore pressure, Lichtenstein stole the ball from a defender just outside the box. She agilely dribbled it between two defenders and into the box. Suddenly, she cut to her right, beating the defender. Yet, as she was about to break free, the defender stuck out her foot, tripping Lichtenstein and sending her to the penalty stripe. Lichtenstein buried the PK, tying the game at 1.
The game stayed tied through halftime and into the second half. However, in the 62nd minute, Swarthmore broke through. This time, it was Swarthmore’s other top scorer and All-Conference member: Marin McCoy ’19.
It all started from a beautiful lead pass from Caroline Khanna ’17. With open space ahead, Khanna found McCoy up the left sideline. McCoy, a lefty, took three precise touches until she was in the eighteen-yard box. It was not an ideal angle; McCoy was about ten feet to the left of the goalpost and twelve feet from the net. The goalie also had good positioning, shading towards the near post. Yet, none of those factors could stop McCoy, who unleashed a perfect shot. Channeling her inner David Beckham, McCoy “bended” the ball just inside the near post and over the keeper’s head.
When asked how she put so much bend on the ball, McCoy modestly played down her ability.
“I honestly couldn’t tell you [how I did it],” she said. “It ended up moving in a way that was beneficial. I find the spin on the ball is very hard to manipulate so it was fortunate that it bent the way that it did.”
After the goal, the momentum completely shifted in the Garnet’s favor. In the 65th minute, Saldivar booted a cross to a cutting Katie Dougherty ’18, who edged out the defenders and tapped the ball into the net. Just three minutes later, Saldivar was at the center of it again. She executed a swift pass to Mele Johnson ’17 who promptly rocketed a shot from just outside the eighteen-yard box with her left foot. The goalie had no chance; it sailed over her head, connecting with the twine. An animated Johnson let out some emotion, flashing a quick, mini fist pump.
Even after putting the nail in St. Joseph’s coffin, Johnson still kept making plays. In the 75th minute she found Claire O’Brien ’18 on a beautiful through ball which sent O’Brien to a one-on-one with the keeper. O’Brien converted, making the game 5-1.
During the game, which finished 5-2, Swarthmore Coach Todd Anckaitis did a tremendous job managing his team. In addition to coming away with the win, he was able to get 22 of his players into the contest (St. Joseph’s only played 13). From a numerical perspective, it may seem as if Anckaitis wanted to reward some of his substitute players with some time in an NCAA tournament game. However, this was how Anckaitis managed his players throughout the year.
“The bulk of our team comes in off the bench and has been critical to our success all season,” he said. “We’ve got a toolbox full of 33 different and unique tools that have all helped build this season to what it has become and each person has contributed.”
Anckaitis showed additional confidence in his bench on Sunday’s game against Catholic. His faith paid huge dividends. Substitutes Sarah Hancock ’18, Izzy Branco-Lo ’18, O’Brien and Johnson all increased the energy, elevated the level of play, contributed to the only goal of the game — where Hancock converted off of a Johnson assist. Though it might have seemed strange that, in the most important game Anckaitis leaned on his reserves rather than his starters, Anckaitis’ reasoning was sound.
He said, “We have depth so we can accommodate for that fatigue. Honestly the mental fatigue of multiple Saturday/Sunday weekends is more challenging here at Swarthmore because of the academic load and not having Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday to get some work done. We are trying to help the players balance that by canceling and shortening some practices but it is hard to make up for an entire day missed for three weekends in a row.”
Interestingly, Anckaitis devised a coaching strategy that takes into account the academic rigors of Swarthmore. Because of his understanding of both the physical and mental fatigue that some of these student-athletes have gone through, Anckaitis evenly spread out the minutes between the players. Not only did this allow the players to perform with a higher intensity, but it also reduced the chance for a fatigue-based miscue.
The Garnet play their next match Saturday at 1:30 at Messiah College against the Hardin-Simmons Cowgirls, a Texas team that is coming off of a big win against #2 Trinity College (Texas). The match promises to be a good one. And, if the team sticks to its gameplan, the players are confident they will be able to emerge victorious.
“Every game is going to be high intensity and every team is going to bring their A-game,” Saldivar said. “I feel like if we just play our game and bring it, it’s a winnable game. All 33 of us know that we can do it.”
If Saldivar’s hunch holds true, then the Garnet will clinch its first Elite Eight berth in school history and be able to keep their magical season alive for at least one more day.