West Long Branch, NJ --
For the second consecutive season, the top four women's soccer teams in the Northeast Conference will converge on Loretto to play for the league championship and a spot in the NCAA Women's College Cup tournament.
That scenario was made reality on Sunday as the Saint Francis U women's soccer team pulled out a dramatic, 3-2, win over fellow title contender Monmouth to clinch the program's second NEC regular season title.
The win gave the Red Flash its 11th win of the season as it improved to 8-0 in conference play despite allowing multiple goals for the first time in nine matches. The Hawks fell to 9-6-2 overall and 6-2-1 in the NEC.
“We were feeling a lot of pressure coming into this game but we pulled through,” said SFU head coach Brenda van Stralen. “Monmouth is a very good team, so coming away with a win was nothing we could take for granted. To do it with hosting and a regular season championship on the line is big.”
With so much on the line, Sunday's match had all the drama of a classic championship-caliber tilt.
The Red Flash took a 1-0 lead in the 13th minute when Laura Stayrook (Johnstown, Pa./Richland) played a ball wide to Barbara Maros de Carvalho (Sao Paulo, Brazil/Colegio Sagrado Coraco de Jesus), whose one-touch cross found an open Eloá Nascimento (Sao Paulo, Brazil/Jose Maria Matosinho) in the box for a one-timer to the far netting past sophomore Monmoth goalkeeper Jocelyn McCoy.
Seven minutes later, Saint Francis increased its lead to 2-0 when Alecia McNiff (Marietta, Pa./Donegal )'s long pass found Tesa McKibben (Cogan Station, Pa./Montoursville) for a shot from 30 yards away. The score was McKibben's 14th of the season.
The Hawks, however, would battle back.
Just over three minutes later, Monmouth cut the lead in half as Claudia Vazquez tucked Dana Costello's corner kick service just under the cross bar and over the outstretched hands of SFU goalkeeper Brianna Butcher (East Longmeadow, Mass./East Longmeadow).
Monmouth knotted the game at 2-2 in the 34th minute when Kim Clemmer was taken down in the box and the Hawks were awarded a penalty kick, which Alexa Freguletti converted into her fourth tally of the year.
The match remained tied at 2-2 for 31 more minutes until SFU registered the game-winner in the 65th minute as Nascimento notched her second goal of the match. Ellie Gavin (Hilliard, Ohio/Bishop Watterson) played a ball into the box off a corner kick, but Monmouth's clearance went directly to Nascimento, who scored for the sixth time in 2012. It was the first multi-goal effort of Nascimento's collegiate career.
“Alecia was crucial for us in the back,” said van Stralen of her junior defender, who was instrumental in posting a second-half shutout. “Tesa and Eloá continue to develop together up front and that showed today. Now we have to get home and get back to work.”
Monmouth nearly tied the game with five seconds remaining as last-ditch attempt hit the cross bar and landed in front of the goal as time expired.
Monmouth held a 16-13 edge in shots, forcing Butcher to make two saves. McCoy made three stops for the Hawks.
Saint Francis returns to the Stokes Soccerplex on Friday as it welcomes Wagner (5-12; 2-6 NEC) for a noon match.