Behind two straight second half goals, the Eastern Michigan University women’s soccer team earned the Mid-American Conference regular season championship with a 2-1 victory over Western Michigan University at a rain-soaked WMU Soccer Complex on Thursday.
EMU (11-6-2, 8-2-1 Mid-American Conference) claimed the third regular season championship in school history, the first since 2003.
“The preparation in the preseason, with the tough Big Ten games, paid off,” EMU coach Scott Hall said of his team’s regular season performance. “It has been fun to watch and fun to watch this team grow.”
Senior midfielder and co-captain Cara Cutaia scored the game-winning goal in the 66th minute on a rocket of a shot, hit from 20 yards out, with the assist going to junior midfielder Martha Stevens. Cutaia was also accredited with an assist on the game-tying goal scored by junior forward Angela Vultaggio.
In the net, sophomore Megan McCabe stopped three of the four shots she faced and the rest of the EMU defense stymied the Western (9-5-4, 7-2-2 MAC) offense in the second half, holding the Broncos to just one shot in the second half.
WMU got their lone goal from sophomore defenseman Heather Piccariello, while senior goalkeeper Michelle Watson stopped three of the six shots on goal.
Despite the rain pouring down, both teams came out hungry and each gained an early opportunity to grab the lead. In the third minute, Western got the first crack when junior midfielder Rachel Chaney found some space and let a shot fly, but McCabe came ready to play and made the save.
It was EMU’s turn in the seventh minute, when senior midfielder Stephanie Clarke sent a blast toward the goal that Watson just barely parried out of play, earning the Eaglestheir first corner kick of the game.
Clarke sent the ensuing ball into the WMU box and connected with senior defender Emily Kowalzyk, but her header narrowly missed the goal and the game remained scoreless.
Western dominated the game going forward as the defense held EMU to zero shots on goal for the remaining 38 minutes of the first half and the offense outshot the Eagles 10-3 in total shots, including two shots on net and four corner kicks.
Eastern’s defense handled the pressure well, until the Broncos finally broke through with 32 seconds remaining in the half.
A Western corner kick was cleared out of the box by Kowalzyk, but her clearance fell right to the feet of Piccariello, who sent a rocket from 25 yards away into the Eastern goal, giving the Broncos the 1-0 lead at halftime.
The EMU offense came out of the break re-energized, as the Eagles were able to connect some passes together and force Watson into making two timely saves in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
EMU’s attack stayed persistent and finally found the equalizer in the 61st minute. Cutaia made a nice run up the center of the WMU defense and laid a pass off to an open Vultaggio, who curled the shot past Watson, scoring her team-high 12th goal of the year and knotting the game at one.
Just five minutes later, Cutaia was in on the action again, this time on the goal-scoring side of things. Stevens hit an open Cutaia with a pass at the top of the WMU 18-yard box and the senior rifled a shot into the upper right corner of the goal, scoring her 11th of the year and giving EMU the lead with 24 minutes remaining.
“It still goes back to those beginning [Big Ten] games, being able to play at that level, at that pace for a complete 90 minutes is something this team has done very well all season,” coach Hall said.
Like the offense, the Eastern defense came out of the break with a newfound vigor and the unit completely shutdown the Western attack, holding the Broncos to just one shot total in the second half, with none coming after the Cutaia goal.
When the clock struck zero, the rain-soaked Eagles stormed the field and celebrated their 2-1 victory and their newly crowned MAC regular season championship.
“We were all so happy, but at the same time, you can’t celebrate too much because we have a lot more work to do and more games to play to [achieve] what we want to,” Cutaia said.
Hall said the team’s celebration would be short lived, as there was still more soccer left to play.
“I wanted to make sure that [the team] enjoyed the day and remember it because you can get so stressed and worked up that you don’t enjoy the whole experience,” he added. “It’s a nice trophy for the trophy case because this league is very hard to win, but it’s back to work on Friday to get ready for the next one.”
Follow Josh Dye on Twitter: @JdyeEMUEcho.