On Sunday afternoon at the Bearcats Sports Complex, where just three days earlier the Binghamton women’s soccer team defeated UAlbany in a tense penalty shootout, BU faced New Hampshire in the America East (AE) championship game. A high-intensity, eight-goal game followed, including a second-half comeback that forced overtime and the second penalty shootout in a row for the Bearcats — this time resulting in a 3-2 loss, as they ended their season as tournament runners-up to UNH.
“Some of it was just quality in terms of our possession, we were just giving the ball away too easily at times,” said Binghamton head coach Neel Bhattacharjee. “New Hampshire’s pressure was part of it, but some of it was just some of the letdowns. We needed more pace on our passes, winning the physical battle. We knew we had to win first balls [and] second balls for us to have a chance, and we knew we needed to get that first goal early, and if we did that we’d be able to push from there.”
BU (9-5-5, 6-1-2 AE) and UNH (9-5-3, 6-1-2 AE) were immediately locked into an end-to-end matchup, with the game living up to the hype of a championship game. The Wildcats took first blood in the ninth minute through a close-range strike to the nearside top corner. However, it didn’t take long for the Bearcats to respond, as senior forward and AE Striker of the Year Maya Anand dribbled through three UNH defenders and added the equalizing goal just two minutes later.
Despite an early 1-1 scoreline, the offensive play in the first 45 didn’t let up. In the 17th minute, the Wildcats gained back their lead through a deep shot that just slipped through the outstretched hands of sophomore goalkeeper Kaitlyn Williams. In the 25-minute mark, UNH doubled its advantage as a through ball found the middle of the box and was lifted over a charging Williams. The Wildcats earned another close-range shot as a through ball slipped past the Bearcats’ backline just for UNH to sky it into the cage and make it 4-1 going into halftime.
With the Bearcats down three goals at the half, they were forced to respond, and they did. The goals poured in just as fast as they did at the start of the game, but this time it was BU who clawed back. A cross from junior defender Lexi Vegoda’s corner kick in the 51st minute passed through a sea of white and navy jerseys, before the wind and bend pushed it into the back of the net — allowing Vegoda to grab an Olimpico goal to begin the second period. Just three minutes later, Binghamton found itself on the attack once again when the ball was played in behind to Anand, who was brought down by a Wildcat defender, awarding the Bearcats a penalty kick. Vegoda lined up and placed the ball in the bottom right corner, just scorching it through the grip of the UNH keeper for the junior’s second goal of the game.
“Vegoda had a tremendous game,” Bhattacharjee said. “She got that first goal, got the PK and we were able to roll from there. Just unfortunate we couldn’t get that fifth goal or obviously finish it out in PKs, but tremendous heart. Everything that we said at halftime our kids were able to do and implement, and brought us back and just got on the brink of a championship because of it.”
The game’s high tempo persisted throughout the rest of the second half, and the effort paid off as the Bearcats found their equalizer in the 84th minute. Junior midfielder Victoria McKnight’s cross was fired into the hands of the UNH keeper, but she was unable to get full control of the ball, fumbling it into a crowded six-yard box, where it found the foot of freshman forward Samiya Reid. Reid smoked it in, tying the game — and as the final six minutes ticked off the clock, BU was catapulted into their second overtime game in a row.
“We felt pretty good in terms of everything we were doing in the second period, so we felt like we wanted to keep the momentum going on our side,” Bhattacharjee said. “It was okay for us to take some risks, maybe not as many risks as being two or three goals down, but we were going to have chances and all it was going to take was one moment.”
Two 10-minute halves of extra-time saw no goals from either side, despite flurries of shots from both ends of the field. The 4-4 score held, and a second shootout in two games for Binghamton loomed. Junior midfielder Molly McClelland and Vegoda were the first to shoot for BU, both converting their attempts to match UNH’s first two. Just like Thursday’s quarterfinal match, Binghamton turned to senior goalkeeper Nicole Scott for the shootout.
The senior saved the next two UNH attempts, but the Bearcats did not convert on their next three attempts, leaving the fate of the game and season on one final shot. The Wildcat kicker approached the ball as Scott cheated to her right. The ball was struck into the middle of the pipes as Scott lunged back at the attempt, but the Bearcat’s effort was too late as the shot connected with the back of the net, naming UNH the AE tournament champions.
“It’s 27 kids that all understood the culture here, what they wanted for their teammates, how they were a part of something bigger than themselves,” Bhattacharjee said. “I guess you can highlight some of the kids that got the conference recognition, but it doesn’t happen without everybody really being involved and that includes our staff as well in all facets. We’re obviously proud of the regular season title and the way we played this year, but if I’m walking away with anything that I’m most proud of it, it’s that. It’s the culture that we’ve built and how these Bearcats have represented Binghamton University, this athletic department and this program overall.”