It took another spectacular effort by senior forward McCallie Jones to produce the needed goals, but the outcome in the Cougars’ gritty 2-1 win over an aggressive and energized Virginia Commonwealth squad Friday night hinged on a series of inspired defensive efforts.
Jones opened the scoring early in the first half after high pressure by Victoria Fichman stripped the ball from a VCU center back, and the two forwards’ quick counter ended with a calm, clinical finish by Jones, who clipped her shot low and just inside the left post to beat a valiant effort by Rams keeper Emma Kruse. The Cougars surrendered the equalizer at 26:06, when Rams forward Courtney Conrad slipped through the center of the defense, doinked a shot off the right post — but hustled to put away the rebound.
Early in the second half, Jones struck again, this time taking space down the left side of the field and well into the box before chipping a centering pass to forward Nicole Koretsky, who finished her run with a one-touch volley that beat a diving Kruse to the far post at 48:35.
But to emphasize the scoring in this match obscures the story of this back-and-forth, gutsy and entirely entertaining win. Fichman’s steal to set up Jones’ goal at 4:10 reversed the flow of the game to that point. Conrad’s clutch follow-up goal broke the rhythm of the Cougars, who had largely taken control of the match after the opening score. Koretsky’s crisp volley to start the second half looked like it might finally give the upper-hand to the Cougars, and yet the Rams generally controlled the rest of the night, with an exhausted College of Charleston hanging on by its collective fingernails.
When it was all over, C of C won despite being out-shot 16-9. The Rams earned six corners on the night, the Cougars not a single one.
And if a single image could tell the story of a 90-minute match, here’s a nominee: Cougars right back Hope Walker, a 5-3 sophomore who had been forced out of the match in the first half with a leg injury, collapsing to the ground after breaking up a VCU attack in the second. As the game continued around her, Walker tried to get up, but couldn’t. So she crawled off to the sidelines, wincing in pain.
“A wise man once told me, good teams always find a way to win,” said Coach Christian Michner. “There were parts of the match that we controlled and parts that we were controlled. And VCU did a very good job. It’s a tough team to play against. But we handled adversity well. We fought together. And that was the quintessential total team effort. With injuries and playing people out of position, we got a lot of great minutes out of some kids tonight. Couldn’t be more proud of them.
“It’s tough, man, when you lose a player like Hope Walker. She’s a very good back, she’s got a lot of pace, she comes forward very well. And Alliy Jordan did an amazing job stepping in as a right back. Ally’s really a center back stepping in as a right back to take her spot. You hope that your kids are ready to play and at this level you need players that are versatile. And she is. ”
In addition the clutch stop that ended Walker’s night, goalkeeper Eli Sarasola came up big on three saves. But no defender put in a better shift than Claire Newman, a 5-7 sophomore out of Greensboro, N.C. The center back made at least two blocks, including one that bailed the Cougars out of a precariously out-numbered counterattack, and when she wasn’t making spectacular plays, she patrolled the center of the back line with fierce efficiency against wave after wave of Rams attackers.
“Unbelievable,” Michner said of her performance. “She plays with so much heart and fire. She’s got a lot of amazing qualities about her game, but the best is that she doesn’t give up. She’ll give you everything that she’s got for 90 minutes.”
The win broke a three-game slide that began with a deflating 0-1 home lost to Northern Florida on Aug. 25 and proceeded through a two-game Illinois road trip that saw the Cougars outscored 9-3. The team returned to Charleston bruised and depleted, and spent much of Friday night absorbing attack after attack from a VCU squad that seemed faster, more energetic and almost destined to find a second-half equalizer.
So while VCU is far from the biggest name on the Cougars’ fixture list, this win might turn out to be one of the more pivotal moments of 2013.
“Tough road trip,” Michner said, summarizing the situation. “Coming into this match, both teams at 1-3, in an environment with both teams wanting to win and needing to win, frankly, for their psychology of it. And now we go into the next game 2-3 with a real good chance to win the tournament, win our home tournament. It’s a testament to the players and their ability to come back from a tough weekend on the road to win a hard game at home.”
The Cougars play Kent State at 2:30 on Sunday in the second match of their Charleston Cup tournament.
TOP IMAGE: Centerback Claire Newman heads the ball away while defending a corner kick in the first half. Dan Conover photos.