A loss and it would all be over. A tie, and the Elis were all but finished. Women’s soccer needed a victory to stay kicking in the Ancient Eight race, and they delivered a win for the ages, reviving the Bulldogs’ razor-thin Ivy lead with only days left in the regular season.

A sense of both overwhelming joy and well-earned relief engulfed the Yale bench as the final seconds ticked off the clock last night at a packed Soccer-Lacrosse Stadium. The Bulldogs just barely survived aggressive play and a series of breakaways to edge Dartmouth, 2-1, possibly denying the Big Green their second Ivy title in three years.

With the win, Yale crept past Dartmouth and Princeton back into their familiar digs at the top of the league standings. The Elis, with 13 points, lead both the Big Green and the Tigers by one with one game left in the regular season. The Bulldogs can nail down their first outright championship ever with a win over Brown Saturday night and render both Princeton’s and Dartmouth’s final matches meaningless.

Yale head coach Rudy Meredith said his team’s effort was spectacular in the face of elimination, though he allowed little time to celebrate just yet.

“It’s a great relief, but we have to start thinking about Brown,” he said. “Tonight they put in an awesome effort, gave 100 percent, did all I asked them to in following through on our game plan.”

Coming off Friday’s loss at Columbia, when the team failed to seize momentum after an early Lion goal, the Elis commanded the pace of last night’s game from the very first whistle. The home team pressured the Big Green all through regulation, which Bulldog scoring leader Crysti Howser ’09 said was in part due to alterations in the typical Yale formation.

“We definitely determined the flow of the game,” she said. “We switched to a 3-5-2 formation to keep up with Dartmouth, because they would outnumber us at midfield if we played the usual 4-4-2.”

Despite hanging around the Dartmouth box for a fair chunk of the first half, the Bulldogs could not muster many solid scoring chances. The visitors managed to earn a handful of opportunities when they were able to clear the ball out of their zone, and nearly scored on a few late-half breakaways.

Goalkeeper Chloe Beizer ’07, who dazzled with three saves playing the first half in net, said the uncompromising Dartmouth offense provided her and fellow goalkeeper Susan Starr ’08 with their most active night of the season.

“There weren’t even that many shots,” Beizer said. “Dartmouth just played so direct on offense. The strikers were always sticking around the top of the box, which is why we had the collisions. There were some words exchanged, but all were in the spirit of the game.”

The game went into halftime scoreless. As practices for other Yale sports on the surrounding fields wrapped up, team after team trickled into the bleachers behind the Yale bench. By the time the second half had kicked off, an uproarious mix of parents, fans and fellow athletes had packed the frigid metal benches in the home stands to near capacity.

As the play intensified and physical contact became rougher between the two contenders, the crowd was riled up by a series of questionable calls. Though Meredith and the players were visibly perplexed after a few seemingly blown calls on Dartmouth fouls, Howser said a lack of interruption may still have been more beneficial.

“It definitely got really physical out there, and the ref might have missed a few calls,” she said. “But in such an important game, sometimes it’s better to just let them go.”

When midfielder Christina Huang ’07 was taken down right in front of the goal without a call in the 67th minute, both the bench and the stands erupted with displeasure. But Huang was tripped again seconds later, setting up a free kick from the top left corner of the box. Her shot was off the mark, and bounced around in a pack of green and white shirts for a few seconds before midfielder Laurel Karnes ’06 came up with it. Big Green keeper Amanda Webb deflected Karnes’ shot, but Howser followed through on the rebound, giving Yale the lead at 67:46.

The scoring chances continued for the Elis as the referees became less permissive. Four minutes later, Huang lined up for another direct kick from almost the same spot. She delivered a deceivingly fast low boot to Webb’s left, and the ball just beat the Dartmouth goalie for Yale’s second goal of the night.

The 2-0 lead did not survive long. Dartmouth’s efforts on offense became more and more frantic as the clock dropped under the 15-minute mark, and sophomore Monica Martin de Bustamante, who was left unmarked directly in front of the Yale net, headed a textbook cross from Roxy Davis past Starr at 77:43 to cut Yale’s lead in half.

The Elis managed the clock through the last 12 minutes well enough to hold on for the tight victory, snapping their short yet costly two-game winless streak. Meredith said the game was clearly between the two best teams in the Ancient Eight.

“All the statistics say that this is true,” he said.

The postgame celebration was the biggest of the season, and a hodgepodge of business suits and football jerseys mingled with the Elis’ home whites at midfield after the final whistle. Despite the satisfaction of grabbing first place back from the Big Green, the Bulldogs’ task is not complete. They have only two days of practice to prepare for the Bears’ arrival Saturday. Only with a win can the Elis guarantee their first outright Ivy League rings since women’s play first began 28 years ago.

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”15600″ ]