The Eastern Michigan University (10-6-2, 7-2-1 Mid-American Conference) women’s soccer team sent its five seniors out on top, beating the University of Akron Zips 4-1 in the final home game of the regular season at Scicluna Field on Sunday.
The EMU offense rallied in the second half, scoring three goals in the first 15 minutes of the second frame.
Junior forward Angela Vultaggio lead the way for EMU, scoring a pair of goals to go along with an assist. Senior midfielders Cara Cutaia and Stephanie Clarke each had assists in the win, with Cutaia adding her 21st career goal, which ties her for fifth most in school history. Junior defenseman Emily Dzik also scored her third goal of the season, with junior forward Bianca Rossi adding an assist.
“I think every once in awhile the team will believe what [assistant coach] Joe [Malachino] and I say, and I think today was one of those days,” EMU coach Scott Hall said of his team. “The entire team, from the freshmen to the juniors, really wanted to do well for the seniors and give them a good day today. They appreciate what they do and the hard work they put [in] and wanted to send them out right.”
Defensively, sophomore Megan McCabe had one of her easiest days of the season, only seeing three shots on target all game, stopping two of them.
The Zips (5-10-3, 2-7-1 MAC) got their lone goal from junior forward Lani Smith, her team-leading eighth of the season. In net, redshirt junior Alex Luevano-Harden started the first half, making two saves on three shots faced, before being replaced at the start of the second half by sophomore Klaire Adee, who made three saves on six shots faced, in relief.
The Zips shellshocked the Eagles in the third minute, grabbing the first goal of the game. Deniro sent the ball into a streaking Smith, who beat her defender to the ball and tucked the ball past a diving McCabe to give Akron the early 1-0 lead.
EMU seemed to settle down and regroup in the minutes following the Akron goal, as they started to build possession and move the ball forward into the Akron end. The Eagles earned back-to-back corner kicks in eighth and 11th minute, but could not find the equalizing goal.
Panic turned into glory for EMU in the 23rd minute, as Akron’s junior midfielder Karina Atkinson sent a shot McCabe slowed down long enough for a defender to clear just before it crossed the goal line.
The clearance sprung a counterattack, capped by a beautiful give-and-go between Vultaggio and Rossi. Vultaggio fed Rossi with a pass, who proceeded to beat her defender and send a sharp pass back to a wide open Vultaggio, whose rocket of a shot beat a diving Luevan-Harden, tying the game at one.
The goal shot some much needed life into the Eastern attack, as the offense began to look sharper in their passes and make more dangerous runs.
In the 37th minute, the Eagles nearly jumped ahead after a Zips foul lead to an Eastern free kick. Clarke stepped up to take the kick and sent a blast toward the goal, but her shot caromed off the cross bar and Vultaggio’s followup shot was saved by Luevan-Harden, ending the last threat either team would get in the first half as the game went into the break, tied at one.
During the intermission, the senior class of Clarke, Cutaia, defenseman Emily Kowalzyk and midfielders Megan Pedro and Allison Kiam were joined by family on the field and honored by the coaching staff and teammates for their playing careers at EMU.
“I love every single one of these girls and getting to spend time with them everyday,” co-captain Pedro said of her senior classmates. “Getting to see them grow from freshmen to seniors and having each girl take steps along the way, it’s fun to see.”
“Everything about today was incredible from the decorations to having our friends and family here was special,” Kaim added. “This goes up there with the Ovarian Cancer game dedicated to my mom.”
The break seemed to be just what the Eagles needed, as the entire squad started the second half fast and precise. EMU earned a corner kick just one minute into the second half and Clarke sent the looping cross toward the back post. Dzik came sprinting into the box and connected on the header, sending the ball into the back of the net and giving the Eagles the 2-1 lead.
“We were just clicking up front in the second half,” Clarke said. “We were making good runs, connecting passes to feet and it just felt like everybody knew where everyone was going to be and we really wanted to put things away because it’s Senior Day.”
EMU’s offense awoke with a fury just eight minutes later, lead by the stellar duo of Vultaggio and Cutaia.
First, in the 54th minute, Cutaia made a clever run to get in behind the Akron defense and tucked the Vultaggio pass into the net, scoring her 10th goal and pushing the EMU lead to 3-1. Then, six minutes later, the two swapped spots, as Cutaia hit Vultaggio with the pass and the forward beat Adee, scoring her second goal of the game and giving the Eagles the decisive 4-1 lead.
“The midfielders and forwards were able to connect better in the second half, I was able to turn and attack their defense and play more balls in the Angela [Vultaggio] and Bianca [Rossi,]” Cutaia said of her teams’ second half turnaround. “It was really emotional coming out here and seeing everyone, my heart was melting. Seeing all our friends and family and the girls, it was just awesome.”
The Eagles’ offense wasn’t the only group who received a spark at halftime, as the Kowalzyk lead defensive unit clamped down and held the Akron offense into only four total shots in the second half and McCabe only had to make one save.
“We just had to calm down and tighten up our passes,” Kowalzyk said of the defensive mindset following the early Akron goal. “Playing with senior girls here will be a great memory for me. They some great girls and some of my best friends.”
Thanks to his team’s dominating play, Coach Hall was able to give some of the younger players valuable time and, when the final whistle blew, the team had clinched a home game for the opening round of the MAC tournament.
Clarke’s second half assist was the 21st of her career, tying her for third most on EMU’s all-time list.
It was the first time all season that all five seniors were on the field at the same time, with Pedro making her first start of the year.
EMU heads to Kalamazoo, Mich. for a Halloween contest against Western Michigan University, Thursday at 1 p.m. The winner of the match will be crowned Regular Season MAC Champions.
Follow Josh Dye on Twitter: @JDyeEMUEcho