A Season for the Ages
Contact: Justin Long
I. ONE GAME AT A TIME
What a difference a year makes.
On Nov. 7, 2010, members of the Amherst women’s soccer team walked off Hitchcock Field with their heads down. Their season had ended with a 1-0 loss in the NESCAC finals, and there was nothing they could do as Williams College stormed the field and posed for pictures with the championship trophy.
All the Jeffs had to show for 2010 was an 8-7-2 record. No conference title. No NCAA Tournament. They began the 2011 season unranked and were considered an average team in an average conference (only Williams was ranked nationally in the preseason). “Last year we overlooked the steps it took to reach our goals,” says head coach Jen Hughes. “This year we broke the season into three parts and set smaller goals. The focus was game to game. We didn’t set an ultimate goal.”
And so Amherst began its 2011 season with a new approach. The first goal was simple: beat Mount Holyoke. Sarah Duffy ’14 then led the Jeffs to a 7-0 win over the Lyons by scoring four times. Their next goal: beat Bates. Duffy broke a scoreless tie in the 69th minute en route to a 2-0 win over the Bobcats.
Shutting out Tufts helped the Jeffs realize how good they were.
That’s pretty much how things went for the Jeffs in September. Other teams couldn’t score, and they couldn’t stop Duffy (among others) from scoring. The only team to get on the board against Amherst in the opening month was Hamilton, which took a 1-0 lead only to have Duffy assist on the tying goal and score the game winner in overtime.
One game at a time. It was a simple and common mentality, and it helped the Jeffs get off to a 6-0 start. But it was Amherst’s seventh game, a 2-0 win over previously-undefeated Tufts, that Hughes says helped the Jeffs realize just how good they were. That confidence then led to a 3-0 win on the seventh-ranked Ephs’ home field, slight payback for the way the 2010 season had ended.
In August Amherst wasn’t a blip on the national radar, but the Jeffs were suddenly ranked eighth in Division III after allowing one goal in their first eight games. One goal in eight games. The Jeffs weren’t just an improved team—they were a completely new team. “We focused exclusively on the regular season,” Hughes says. “We never talked about going undefeated or winning every NESCAC game.”
But they did win every NESCAC game. With a 10-0-0 conference record (14-0-0 overall), Amherst earned the top seed in the NESCAC Championship. After beating Bowdoin and a blizzard in overtime of the quarterfinals, the Jeffs shut out Wesleyan to set up a rematch with Williams in the championship game.
For 364 days the Jeffs had to live with the memory of Williams storming their field as NESCAC champions. On Day 365, they turned the tables. Williams held a 1-0 lead with only eight minutes to play and seemed to have another title wrapped up, but Amherst tied the game at 82:31 and took the lead for good at 85:12. In the blink of an eye, 2010 was forgotten.
At the final whistle, the Jeffs stormed the field. They piled on top of each other, hugged, hoisted the championship trophy and shed tears of joy. This time around, it was the Ephs who had to walk off Hitchcock Field with their heads down. “We had come up short against them twice before in the finals,” Hughes says. “It was satisfying to win it the way we did.”
II. NEARLY PERFECT
Amherst began the NCAA Tournament at 17-0-0 as one of the most dangerous teams in the country. Many people believe teams are better off if they begin major tournaments with a loss already in the bag, as though being undefeated is a burden. That didn’t seem to affect the Jeffs, who kept their feet on the gas pedal and earned 3-1 wins over Castleton State and Misericordia in the opening rounds.
But it was the next two rounds that would determine just how good Amherst really was. “Our results gave us confidence going into the tournament,” Hughes says. “We had a tough draw, but I truly believed we had what it took.”
Calling Amherst’s draw “tough” would be like calling Chicago’s winters “chilly.” Amherst’s first test was Johns Hopkins, which boasted a 21-0-0 record and had outscored teams by a 92-9 margin on the year. The Blue Jays scored their first goal of the season 13 seconds into their opener. They scored five or more goals 11 times. They outscored opponents 47-2 during a 10-game stretch in October and November. In short, they were unstoppable, and they knew how to stop you.
Johns Hopkins had out-scored its opponents by a 92-9 margin
before being shut out by Amherst in the NCAA Tournament.
To prepare for the battle of unbeatens, Hughes mimicked the Johns Hopkins style in practice. The Blue Jays were aggressive and forced other teams to constantly defend. They pushed players forward and rarely had to defend themselves. “One of our goals was to approach challenges with confidence,” Hughes says. “We proposed the Johns Hopkins style as a challenge. By game time, we were ready.”
At first it seemed as though Amherst was in over its head. The Blue Jays attempted five corner kicks and didn’t allow a single shot in the first six minutes. But the rest of the scoreless first half was controlled by the Jeffs. “We didn’t want to adjust our system to what they were doing,” Hughes says. “We kept three strikers high, transitioned quickly and made them defend us. They probably weren’t used to that.”
Johns Hopkins didn’t trail at any point of any game prior to playing Amherst. For 1,946 consecutive minutes, the Blue Jays didn’t know what it felt like to be losing. But with 34:47 remaining in the Sectional semifinals, Duffy introduced them to that feeling. Ten minutes later, Ariana Twomey ’15 let them know what it felt like to be losing by two. Twenty-five minutes after that, the unbeatable was beaten, and everyone suddenly knew the Jeffs, now 20-0-0, were for real.
Amherst’s reward? Less than 24 hours to rest up for top-ranked Messiah, the face of Division III soccer. The Falcons were 20-0-1, had won three of the past six NCAA titles and out-shot Elms by a 44-0 margin in the tournament’s opening round. If beating Johns Hopkins was improbable, beating Messiah was virtually impossible.
Unfortunately for Amherst, the Falcons were as good as advertised. Behind a hat trick from Erin Hench ’12, they became the only team to beat the Jeffs in 2011. But the final 3-1 score was deceiving. It was only a 1-0 game after 80 minutes, forcing Amherst to change its scheme and push for the tying goal, which opened the gates for Messiah. (Not to take anything away from an exceptional Messiah team. Senior classes don’t go 96-1-4 and win three national titles by mistake.)
With a 14-13 advantage in shots, Amherst was one of only two teams to out-shoot the Falcons in 2011. Messiah went on to out-shoot its final two opponents by a combined 26-9 en route to the title. Nobody played the champs the way Amherst did. The Jeffs hung with the best team in Division III in what felt like a national championship. Unfortunately for Amherst, that game came two rounds too soon.
III. LOOKING BACK
The Jeffs set program records for winning streak, unbeaten streak and wins in a season, and they tied records for goals (58) and shutouts (11). They led the NESCAC in scoring offense (2.71) and goals-against average (0.61), were 3-0 in overtime games and overcame a 1-0 deficit three times.
Hughes—the NESCAC and NSCAA New England Coach of the Year—attributes much of the team’s success to her seniors. “Talent is a big piece of the equation, but if you have chemistry it can be the X-factor. This class was full of leaders who helped us establish team chemistry before the season started.”
Complementing that chemistry was incredible talent. Duffy led the NESCAC in goals (14) and assists (10). Chloe McKenzie ’14 transformed from a backup goalie to a clutch forward and scored 10 goals. Kathryn Nathan ’13 was named the NESCAC Co-Player of the Year and earned a spot on the NSCAA All-America First Team. Jill Kochanek ’12 and goalkeeper Allie Horwitz ’12 led the defense as All-America selections.
Amherst has advanced to the national quarterfinals seven times, but the 2011 Lord Jeffs are most similar to the 2001 squad. That team also scored 58 goals, went 3-0 in overtime games and earned a dramatic 2-1 win over Williams in the NESCAC finals. The 2001 Jeffs got off to a 6-4-1 start before putting together a 10-game win streak when it mattered most. This year’s team also knew a thing or two about streaks.
The Jeffs will have a lot to be proud of when they
look back and reflect on the memorable 2011 season.
The biggest difference is that the 2001 Amherst squad is still the only one to have competed in the NCAA finals. But maybe this year’s team was just as good. Maybe this year's team was finals-worthy and was simply dealt a bad hand. In the end it doesn’t matter (the important thing is that Amherst has been competitive at the national level for more than a decade), but it wouldn't do the 2011 Jeffs justice to simply label them as one of seven Amherst teams to have ever played in the NCAA quarterfinals. This was one of best—and maybe even the best—teams the program has ever seen.
Most teams in Amherst’s position would have simply been happy to be in the national quarterfinals. Going from 8-7-2 and unranked to 20-0 with a chance to upset the top-ranked team in the country, the Jeffs were playing with house money. But they weren’t just happy to be there. They knew they were good enough to keep winning. They expected to keep winning, which is why that loss affected them weeks after the season ended. For many players, that loss probably still stings.
Eventually, everyone on the 2011 Amherst team will get over losing to Messiah. Hughes hopes that when they do, they’re able to learn from the journey. “I hope they were able to walk away from the experience with a lot of confidence. If they establish high expectations and are willing to put the work in—not just talk about putting the work in—then they can achieve their goals.”
“They worked so hard for those results,” Hughes adds. “I’m glad they got to experience the pure joy of accomplishment. I don’t ever want them to forget how good that feels.”
Lastly, Hughes hopes her players remember all of the people who enabled them to succeed. “They talk about how much they care about each other and how it feels like a family. That feeling of family is special—you don’t get that everywhere.”
Amherst began the 2011 season unranked, but that won’t be the case in 2012. The Jeffs welcome back an exceptional offense and will be the new team to beat in the NESCAC. They’ll still take things one game at a time, but they’re going to have to learn how to do it with targets on their backs.
What a difference a year makes.