It was a day of firsts for the Vassar soccer teams. Big firsts.
The men’s side welcomed to Gordon Field the Hobart Statesmen, who came into the day tied for first in the Liberty League at 5-1-1 (6-4-2 overall), just in front of the 4-2-0 Vassar squad (8-4-0 overall) in the race for critical league tournament seeding.
More than league rankings motivated the Brewers coming in to the clash, however. For one, Vassar’s seniors had never beaten Hobart, despite the teams facing off at least once per year. In the last several seasons, a series of clashes and spats have left the Brewers with a strong distaste for the Hobart squad, adding fuel to their competitive fire. In the words of senior captain Tim Collins: “We hate those guys.”
What’s more, last year the Statesmen knocked off the Brewers in the Liberty League finals, 2-0, ending Vassar’s season. That loss was fresh in the minds of the Vassar players heading into Saturday’s fixture, according to junior forward Kevin Baliat. “There was a lot of pain felt last year after we lost to them in the last few seconds of the final last year,” remembered Baliat, “so no one wanted to feel that again, and that was the driving force we had today.”
Two straight losses before Saturday’s game also served to spur the team. According to Collins, as the group prepared for the match, they focused on physical play, winning the ball back and playing their game. Said the senior captain, “We had a couple bad games in a row—didn’t play well— so we just wanted to get back to who we were, and possess the ball and play it around.”
The game started slowly, neither side able to put together much coherent attacking play. Hobart won several early corners (the visitors would have seven on the day) but couldn’t fashion any solid chances, save a ball kicked into the Vassar net after being unlawfully knocked from the hands of Vassar’s junior keeper Will Marment.
The home side’s best chance of a first half dominated by physical midfield play came about 20 minutes in, when an overlapping Henrik Olsson found the end of a needle-threading pass from sophomore Andrew Goldsmith. Olsson, a junior left back, controlled the pass and shifted it to his right foot but placed his shot just wide of the far post.
Hobart began the second half brightest, but in the 61st minute, sophomore Austin Lukasik broke free down the right side and whipped in a pinpoint cross to the back post, where it met the forehead of junior Mattie Mrlik. Mrlik’s third goal of the season sent him celebrating to the rapturous Vassar bench, while Lukasik pointedly jumped and gestured in front of the Hobart team.
Down one, Hobart pushed forward. For the final 30 minutes, tackles flew in from both teams, the game enlivened by the opening goal. The Statesmen flooded into the Vassar box, wave upon wave, but the Brewer backline held firm, led by Collins and senior Tyler Gilmore. As Hobart desperately pressed for an equalizer in the closing seconds, Vassar first-year Nathan Logan picked up a misplayed clearance and, one on one with the Hobart keeper, calmly finished for his first career goal. Just seconds later, the whistle blew. 2-0 final.
It was a historic result for the Brewers. “It’s great, especially against Hobart,” attested Collins. “I mean, [we’d] never beaten them in our four years here, so it’s a really great win for us.”
While on the men’s side the team’s seniors had never beaten Hobart, on the women’s side, the program itself had never beaten William Smith (Hobart and William Smith Colleges are virtually one college, linked in all but name and history). A draw in 2010 was Vassar’s only result against William Smith in 20 previous games. Furthermore, the Herons of William Smith came into the day ranked seventh nationally and undefeated in the Liberty League.
In the four years that the current class of seniors has been at Vassar, their best result was a 2-0 loss in the Liberty League finals last season. Understandably, the Herons began the day as presumptive favorites. This may have helped the Brewers, according to senior captain Dahlia Chroscinski: “We definitely had an underdog mentality, which I think we thrive with,” she said.
The match kicked off in Geneva, NY, at the same time as the men’s reverse fixture. The play began evenly, with Vassar outshooting William Smith 8-6 in the first half. The Herons had the better chances early, but it was Vassar sophomore Skylar Herrera-Ross who tallied the game’s first goal, pouncing on a rebound in the 38th minute.
In the second half—the favored Herons now down a goal—what had been a relatively even contest flipped on its axis. The Heron attack pinned the Brewers back, forcing them to defend desperately. After failing to win any corners in the first half, William Smith earned nine in the second. The second half saw the Herons rack up a staggering 19 shots. Yet the Brewer defense held firm, the team surviving the second-half siege largely thanks to a career-high 15 saves from sophomore goalkeeper Fiona Walsh.
What allowed the underdog Brewers to cling to a one-goal lead? “Grit,” answered Chroscinski. “It came down to heart. They underestimated us, and once we got one in on them and took advantage of one of their mistakes, that definitely messed with them psychologically.”
The victory over powerhouse William Smith—the first in program history—provides a boost for the Brewers as they near the end of the regular season and look toward the postseason. Chroscinski reasoned: “Knowing we have the power to do that and knowing that we can match any team’s competitiveness and skill, I think the next two games we should be able to come out strong the way we played against them and secure a good spot in playoffs.”
It was a momentous day for Vassar soccer. The women’s 1-0 away win against William Smith and the men’s 2-0 home win versus Hobart both marked significant firsts for the teams and set them up for a successful home stretch. While senior captains Collins and Chroscinski stressed the importance of looking forward for their respective groups, it was Baliat who perhaps best captured the mood of both teams after their victories. “It was a big win,” he said, “and we’re going to celebrate tonight.”