In a season to remember for the University of Maine Black Bears women’s soccer team, the group ended the year in a thrilling playoff matchup against their rivals, the University of New Hampshire Wildcats. A phenomenal regular season for UMaine within America East helped Scott Atherley’s team as they secured the third seed in the conference at the start of postseason action. While their play was stellar throughout the earlier portion of the year, an immaculate performance was necessary if they were to take down the second-seeded Wildcats.
UNH had the moniker of being the only America East team to defeat the first-seeded Binghamton Bearcats all year, a signifier of their quality play. Second-year forward Meghan Guarente has been the driving force in the Wildcat final third, scoring five goals with seven assists and a total of 17 team-leading points.
On the other side of the ball, the Black Bears have been led by graduate student forward Saylor Clark, as she’s impressively come off the bench in every match this season and scored seven times in the process. Her 16 points led the team, with two assists attached to her name. Second and third-year forwards Abby and Kayla Kraemer have been as dangerous as ever with the sisterly duo combining for eight goals and five assists for the year on top of 21 total points.
Fourth-year defender Halle Rogers managed to score twice this season, but her ability in the backline to dictate tempo and limit what made it into the defensive area this season was paramount in reaching the playoffs in the first place. Behind Rogers stood grad student goalkeeper Kira Kutzinski, a stalwart on the defensive side of the ball for the Black Bears for much of their recent history. Her play has been nothing short of perfect this season, and early on against the Wildcats that sentiment was more than evident.
Within the first minute of play UNH was able to muster their first attack, putting a headed effort on frame as Kutzinksi was forced to hold onto the ball on impact. Just under 15 minutes into the match UMaine’s keeper again found herself in trouble. Kutzinski redirected a Wildcat corner kick with a flying punch directly into the air above the goal. After pinballing around the box for a brief interval, Kutzinski was able to gather the ball and quell the immediate fears of her defenders.
Only seven minutes later she wasn’t able to do the same when UNH’s first-year midfielder Abbi Maier turned home a pinpoint cross on the doorstep of the Black Bears goal. The pressure had been on up to this point of the match and only seemed to intensify as the two teams continued to battle. Black Bear graduate student defender Amanda Sandberg cleared what would’ve been a phenomenal “Olimpico-style” goal directly from a corner kick minutes later thanks to some heads-up defending, holding the Wildcats to a one-score advantage.
After pining away in their own half with UNH bearing down on the UMaine goal, the Black Bears got the opportunity they had been working toward in the 37th minute. A lovely through ball from first-year midfielder Madison Michaud met the foot of fellow first-year, forward Julie Lossius. Controlling the ball masterfully, Lossius drove her way through the Wildcat box before placing an inch-perfect strike into the bottom right corner of the opposing goal. The goal was Lossius’ second in as many games, marking the continuation of her late-season hot streak. To make matters even more thrilling, Binghamton and the University at Albany were knotted up at one goal a piece at roughly the same time. The result left both sides unaware of who would await the winner in the following round when they returned to their locker rooms at halftime, but both sides were still just as determined to play whoever won the concurrent competition.
Kutzinski was called upon early in the second half, tipping a redirected free kick just over the bar in the 52nd minute. Ruthless defending, and a newfound sense of energy propelled the Black Bears over the course of the second half of play. Holding their own and closing the gap on shots on goal as time went on, UMaine looked more and more like they had a significant chance at winning the contest against their higher-ranked rivals. Going into the last five minutes of play, extra time almost seemed to be a guarantee.
As the game clock ticked just past the 85th-minute mark, the Wildcats managed to put the ball into a dangerous area within UMaine’s 18-yard-box. The cross out of seemingly nothing glanced off of the head of New Hampshire’s Maier yet again, with her header flying just out of the reach of Kutzinski and into the net to give the Wildcats a late advantage.
The Black Bears seemed stunned and were unable to mount any form of a comeback in the closing minutes of the contest. Atherley’s Black Bears ultimately fell to the UNH Wildcats 2-1. Conversely, Binghamton had to take Albany to penalty kicks before advancing to the next round after an action-packed 3-3 draw. UNH will face Binghamton in the America East Playoff Final, traveling to Vestal, New York for the title game. As for UMaine, many questions remain unanswered for their 2023 season.
A replacement is needed for the departing Kutzinski, as well as a bevy of outfield depth with Clark, Emma Donovan, Birte Speck, Hannah Bamford, Sandberg, Tiana Bucknor and Susannah Gaines set to have their NCAA eligibility expire as they are graduate students this current season. There is certainly a challenge ahead for Atherley and company, but with the likes of first-year forwards Jordane Pinette and Lossius, midfielders Michaud and first-year Amelia Ames, and an experienced defensive group led by Rogers accompanied by second-year defender Myla Schneider the upcoming year is sure to be an exhilarating one.