For 77 minutes Sunday, the Colonials looked as if they were going to be crowned the A-10 conference tournament champions.
After leading for the majority of the match, GW ceded only its third goal in seven games with just over 12 minutes to play in the second half against defending champion Xavier.
The No. 2 seed Colonials, who struggled offensively in the game, battled No. 6 seed Xavier through the remaining minutes of regulation time and through two overtime periods, before ultimately falling 4-3 in a penalty kick shootout.
“Unfortunately we were just on the wrong end today, and sometimes that’s the way it goes,” head coach George Lidster said. “I think all the injuries finally caught up to us. We did great though, and I am so proud of [the team]. They gave everything, and I was proud of the way they represented themselves, the coaching staff and George Washington University.”
The Colonials were dominated in the first two periods of play by the Musketeers, outshot 17-6, but were anchored by a defensive effort highlighted by Lafferty, who posted seven saves in the match.
“Rudolph’s speed was missed today,” Lidster said. “We missed that outlet. The double overtime game took a lot out of the guys and we just didn’t have that extra yard to take us past their defenders.”
The Colonials were able to break ahead first when junior Mattia Melillo finished his fifth goal of the season on a pass from Berhanu in the 34th minute. The goal marked one of GW’s few scoring opportunities on the day, and the Colonials went into halftime with a 1-0 lead over the Musketeers, despite being outshot 9-3. The GW defense, despite losing freshman Matthew Scott to injury, deterred multiple attacks early in the half, as Lafferty posted four of his saves in the first 45 minutes.
“The defense was superb,” Lidster said. “When Matthew Scott went off we feared the worst, but people again stepped up. We had a couple of goal line clearances, great tackles, and even in double overtime the defense hung on.”
Xavier continued to press the Colonials in the second half, once again outshooting GW 10-3. The Colonials had their best opportunity to put the game out of reach with 15 minutes to play, when sophomore Tyler Ranalli sailed a ball that looked destined to score just wide of the goal post. Two minutes later, Xavier equalized on a corner kick, and regulation play finished in a 1-1 deadlock.
After two overtimes, neither side was able to break the stalemate. Junior defender Jamie LaFleur made one of the most important stops of the season with five minutes to play in overtime, knocking the ball away from a charging attacker to prevent a one-on-one against Lafferty. Overtime ended without a score, forcing a best of five penalty kick showdown, something Lidster desperately wanted to avoid Friday.
On his first attempt, Berhanu sailed the ball over the goal, giving an early advantage to Xavier. Lafferty made a diving stop on the Musketeers’ first attempt to keep GW level. Each side proceeded to score on their next three attempts, leaving it to the final kick to decide the winner. The Colonials missed on their fifth attempt, and Xavier was able to sneak their shot past Lafferty to earn the conference trophy.
“They were physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted,” Lidster said of his team. “A few of the players were in tears, but I said to them, ‘You have to be proud, we achieved a lot this season. To get second place is a tremendous achievement.’ ”
Friday night in St. Louis against La Salle, the Colonials got out to an early lead with a goal from senior Yoni Berhanu in the 17th minute. Playing a pass from fellow senior Jake Davis, who was sidelined much of the season due to injury, Berhanu was able to slip the ball past the La Salle keeper for his 11th goal of the season.
“[La Salle] started well,” Lidster said. “They controlled play for the first five or six minutes of the game. We had a good spell for 20 minutes, and the last 15 minutes they put pressure back on us and scored a goal.”
La Salle evened the score with three minutes to play in the first half when a header by the Explorers was able to get past the GW defense. Junior goalkeeper Brendan Lafferty posted four saves in the first half for GW, while the Explorers owned a 7-6 shot advantage. Neither side was able to break the 1-1 deadlock in the second half in what Lidster referred to as “backwards and forwards half,” and La Salle continued to outshoot the Colonials 10-3.
As overtime play began, GW took control offensively, outshooting La Salle 8-1 in extra time. In the 108th minute, freshman Farhan Khan placed a golden goal past the La Salle defense on a light pass in the box from fellow freshman Joe Holleran, ending the match and securing GW a spot in the championship game. Had neither side scored, the teams would have entered a penalty kick shootout to determine the winner, something Lidster wanted to avoid.
“It was massive to get the goal,” Lidster said. “Their goal keeper is very, very, good, and going into a penalty shoot is a crapshoot.”
But following the hard fought, double overtime win on Friday against No. 5 seed La Salle, GW came up short in the conference final. Heading into the championship match, the Colonials were shorthanded up front, as high-scoring junior forward Seth Rudolph, who played 10 minutes in Friday’s game, was unavailable for Sunday.
Lidster, who announced his retirement at the beginning of the season, said this game was about the team.
“To be honest, it really hasn’t sunk in that this is my last game,” Lidster said. “I feel sorry for them. All my feelings are for the players and how emotionally and physically drained they are. At this present time, my concern is just with the players.”
Reflecting on the season, Lidster was more than pleased with the accomplishments of his team, who made it back to the tournament championship for the first time in seven years and won its first regular season title in 19 years.
“I’m really proud of the team and right from the start of the season we progressed and we got better every game,” Lidster said. “The guys gave everything. We played well, and whoever got injured, people stepped in. We just fell a little bit short today.”