Ninety-three minutes. That’s how long it took the William and Mary women’s soccer team to prove it was better than Virginia Commonwealth, and deserving of its first CAA conference championship since 2003.
For 93 minutes, the two teams played scoreless soccer, each unable to convert chances, and each playing inspired, tenacious defense. But something had to give, and, once again, junior midfielder Mallory Schaffer came through with late game heroics to eke out a dramatic 1-0 victory and assure head coach John Daly his 10th conference title.
Daly’s teams owned their conference opponents from 1998 to 2003, winning six consecutive CAA tournament titles — but the Tribe has failed to win a conference title since then. The coach was relieved to see the dry-spell end and the trophy finally returned to the College.
“It’s been a long wait,” Daly said. “We’ve finished in close position a couple times but just haven’t been able to bring home the bacon … This time the bacon was right here.”
With the win, the Tribe advances to a first-round NCAA tournament matchup against North Carolina. But an automatic bid in the field of 64 wasn’t always a sure thing. VCU, the lone team to beat the College in conference play during the season, outshot the Tribe 9-1 in the second half and tested junior keeper Katherine Yount several times midway through the second half.
Seconds after a leaping save in the 72nd minute, Yount could only watch as a VCU free-kick slammed into the left-post, just inches away from giving the Rams a late lead. Although stretched at times, the Tribe defense held up to preserve a clean sheet in regulation, setting the stage for Schaffer’s golden goal, which came just three minutes into the first of two scheduled 10-minute overtime periods.
Thanks to a tactical change from Daly that pushed the junior midfielder to a more forward, attacking position, she found herself in the perfect spot to take a chipped pass from junior forward Erin Liberatore at the top of the box. Schaffer then managed a deft touch to get the ball down on her right foot before finessing a shot by the keeper for sixth game-winner of the year, and maybe the biggest goal of her impressive career.
“I turned and the ball was in front of me and I hit it,” she said. “I don’t know how [the ball] got there … I guess it doesn’t really matter … it went in.”
While the details of the decisive play may have been a bit fuzzy, the significance of the victory was not.
“It’s unbelievable … hard to believe really,” Schaffer said. “We only have four seniors who have been to the conference tournament, the rest [of us] haven’t, so it really got our emotions high to come out and play a good game.”
If playing for a conference championship wasn’t motivation enough for the College, then avenging its sole conference defeat was.
“There was a lot of motivation, kind of a revenge factor,” Schaffer said. “It was more of us needing to change our play [this time], more than adapting to how they play.”
Daly’s late tactical tweak, sliding Schaffer up and filling the gap with the senior defender Diana Weigel, was a calculated risk that ultimately paid off.
“Their defense was definitely on top of us, and we decided we were going to push [Schaffer] forward to try and get our most dangerous player in the box,” Daly said. “Sometimes, you do that and the other team goes down and scores. This time, it worked.”
Although not his most experienced group, the coach nevertheless saw something special take place among the team.
“The chemistry was exceptional this year. We were pretty varied in our threats, and we’ve played well,” Daly said.