COVID Season Ends in Heartbreak for Women’s Soccer

by, Pete Janny, Sports Editor

Friday’s quarterfinals matchup against Rider had been a long time coming for Manhattan women’s soccer. It was their biggest game since 2017, but not under regular circumstances. Instead of their usual Fall slate of games, they had to adjust to playing competitive games in the spring thanks to the pandemic. The thrill of championship soccer was in the air in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.

In some ways, Friday’s game felt like the start of a new era for Manhattan soccer. It was their first postseason game since 2017, when they lost 5-1 to Monmouth in the MAAC Championship. The return to the postseason provided a fresh breath of air and newfound hope for the program, who went 3-2 in the regular season.

Manhattan got off to a fast start. In the 14th minute, senior Bri DeLeo deposited a shot in the back of the net from 20 yards out to give Manhattan a 1-0 lead. The goal was DeLeo’s ninth of her career and was an important counterpunch to a Rider team that beat Manhattan 3-1 on Easter Saturday.

Manhattan carried that 1-0 lead into halftime. As the underdog fifth-seed, the Jaspers looked keen on pulling off the upset over four-seed Rider.

However, with the home crowd behind them, the complexion of the game turned in favor of the Broncs in the second half.

After getting off six shots in the first half, Rider got on the board in the 48th minute when Mackenzie Rodriguez found the back of the net.

The Broncs kept applying pressure to keep Manhattan goalie Kim Mains busy in net. Mains, now a junior, finished with seven saves in the game to mark the end of her first season as a starter.

Manhattan College’s Women’s Soccer number 6, Kaitlyn Cooke attempts goal against Rider. GOJASPERS / COURTESY

Rider got the game winner off Mains in the 68th minute with Hannah Freeman doing the honors. Freeman made a nice touch just outside the box to free herself up before firing a shot that curled past a diving Mains.

Despite falling behind, Manhattan played a great final 25 minutes to keep things interesting.

Junior striker Eve Montgomery directed two hard shots on net, one of which forced the Rider goalie to make a diving save for a Manhattan corner kick.

Graduate student Tia Painilainen also had a chance later in the half, but the shot sailed over the net to end the threat. A former Arizona Wildcat, Painilainen concluded her third season with Manhattan by tying junior Bri Floyd for the team high in assists with two. Although fatigue began to set in, the Jaspers’ attack kept going until the buzzer sounded.

DeLeo, who has been a stalwart in the midfield ever since her freshman year, had one last chance in the box with 25 seconds left to keep Manhattan’s season alive. However, the shot was blocked by a few Rider defenders, effectively ending Manhattan’s hopes.

Both teams were evenly matched on Friday in the high stakes matchup. Each team registered 15 shots with nine shots on goal apiece. Manhattan ended up edging Rider in corner kicks 13-6, but simply couldn’t take advantage with their set piece opportunities.

“Unfortunately, two of their shots found the back of the net,” head coach Brendan Lawler said after the game. “Soccer’s tough that way and it doesn’t always bounce your way.”

In some ways, Friday’s loss also felt like the end of an era. The senior class took the field for the last time after helping the team advance to the MAAC Finals in 2017 when they were only freshmen. Sharing that moment together was special, especially after the pandemic cancelled their fall season.

“It’s always tough finding the right words to thank the seniors,” Lawler said. “They were so good during a global pandemic and we just thank them for all they did.”

The Jaspers will now have a quick turnaround with the Fall season just around the corner. Lawler and his players seem ready for that challenge after dealing with everything the pandemic threw at them. From a coaching standpoint, Lawler learned a lot from the schedule changes.

“In some ways I learned to be jealous of spring sports,” Lawler said half-jokingly. “They get to bring their players through the fall instead of throwing them into the fire.”

Not having to be thrown into the fire was important for the freshmen on the team. The absence of competition in the Fall allowed them to acclimate to a new school and new team at a slower pace. Looking ahead, they are expected to hit the ground running for the Fall season, which will likely be normal again. Given the extra year of eligibility for all student-athletes, the team is projected to feature a similar balance of veterans and younger players that will be able to build on their chemistry.

“The players were resilient and they never complained. Whenever anything came up about playing, they never complained about the schedule and were just excited about getting to play again.”