When Yale women’s soccer sat down for dinner Friday night in New York, the team was the Ivy League darling, never having spent a moment away from the comforts of first place. Then came the feisty Lions. By the time they broke for lunch the next day, the Bulldogs were 90 minutes away from elimination.
Friday night, the heavily-favored Bulldogs (11-3-1, 3-1-1 Ivy) threw themselves into an uphill battle almost immediately on their way to a 2-1 upset at Columbia (9-5-1, 3-2 Ivy). The Lions capitalized on home-field advantage and a very early lead to become the first Ancient Eight squad to top the Elis this season.
Yale dreaded falling into complacency after such a prolonged winning streak. Even after a tie against Penn abruptly halted their run at eleven games last Saturday, the Elis paid only lip service to the possibility of losing to a Columbia squad that had been average at best this year. But not only did their worst fears come to fruition in Manhattan Friday night, they dragged on into Saturday, where a Dartmouth victory over Harvard bumped a stunned Yale squad into second billing in the Ivy ranks. All of a sudden, a Big Green victory over the Elis in New Haven Wednesday night would seal the championship for a squad that has lurked in second place the entire season.
Lions forward Cathleen Cimino’s goal was anything but a resounding boot at the 4:01 mark — Yale head coach Rudy Meredith called it an “early mistake” on his team’s part. But the margin for error that had become the norm for the Elis never materialized tonight, as the Lions grabbed the momentum and never let go.
Meredith, whose team had been unbeaten in its last 12 games, offered praise for the Lions’ effort.
“I felt that our intensity just wasn’t there,” he said. “We were outplayed, out-hustled, out-coached, and they just wanted it a little bit more.”
The Bulldogs trailed going into the half, despite holding an eight-to-two advantage in shots. Playing from behind for only the second time since their winning streak began, the Elis looked rejuvenated after halftime, and forward Maggie Westfal ’09 was able to even the score off a header from midfielder Crysti Howser ’09 only five minutes into the second frame.
The momentum began to slide back towards the road team as the second half progressed, which, Meredith said, made Columbia’s second goal a shock. A Jana Whiting cross came “out of heaven” to beat a retreating Susie Starr ’08, giving the Lions the lead with only 16 minutes left to play.
“They had two lucky shots that usually [wouldn’t] go in but did,” Emma Whitfield ’09 said. “But our main problem was the first ten minutes. They came out ready to kill, and we didn’t.”
The Lions’ game plan of clearing the ball out of their zone at all costs worked wonders over the scrambling Bulldogs in the final minute, who could not muster much of a response to Whiting’s boot.
Meredith led a dejected Yale team to the far corner of the stadium after the last whistle for a markedly long postgame meeting, while Lions players, parents and fans took the field, snapping photo after photo of the impromptu party. Captain Eleni Benson ’06 echoed the team’s sentiment that the game was clearly the low point of the 2005 season.
“We are just very upset,” she said. “This is such a huge disappointment to lose here, even though as far as the Ivies, we can still win.”
Meredith said recent history was on the Lions’ side.
“I actually did expect that this might happen,” he said. “I don’t know why, but we usually play like crap when we’re down here. Remember that two years ago, we came down here and lost too.”
In a strange twist, the team rooted for Harvard after the loss, turning their attention to the Crimson-Big Green match-up the following morning. Unfortunately, Dartmouth, which has 12 points in league standings, was able to hold off the Crimson at Ohiri Field in a 1-0 final, leapfrogging over the Elis’ 10 points into sole possession of first place.
Coming into the weekend, the Elis dubbed Friday night their semi-final and next Wednesday’s game against the Big Green their de facto championship. With Yale’s loss and Dartmouth’s victory, the upcoming battle that the players all hoped would be the Ivy clincher will instead be a fight for survival.
Meredith, who went to Boston Saturday to scout the Big Green, told the team in a meeting yesterday afternoon that they had to put their experiences with Penn and Columbia in perspective.
“[Sunday] we talked about the need to put Friday behind us,” forward Emma Whitfield ’09 said. “Rudy told us to learn from Penn and Columbia, but not to think about it as much going into this week. It’s a tool to get us ready for Wednesday, and really, this entire last week of the schedule.”
Throughout the winning streak, players had shown concern about their unfamiliarity with being the “team to beat.” Wednesday night against the first-place Big Green, the Bulldogs will take the field as underdogs, which, according to Whitfield, may not necessarily be a bad thing.
“It’s sad that we lost, but it could be a good thing,” she said. “Now we’re the underdogs. We won’t be playing to defend anything, but instead we’ll have to fight for something. That makes me more excited and motivated, and more pumped to play Wednesday night.”