WEST POINT, N.Y. – Senior Natalie Hojnacki accounted for the game’s only scoring, while senior goalkeeper Lauren Mains stood tall with eight saves to lead the third seeded Lehigh women’s soccer team to a hard-fought 1-0 win over No. 2 Bucknell in the Patriot League Semifinals on Friday evening. A wild back-and-forth affair saw a goal waived off on each side before the Mountain Hawks scored the eventual game-winner midway through the second half. Lehigh (10-4-4) advances to its first Patriot League Championship Game since 2004 where it will face top-seeded Army on Sunday at 1 p.m.
“I thought Patriot League [regular season] games were exciting, then a postseason game like this was twice as much,” said head coach Eric Lambinus. “The girls handled all the excitement and intensity extremely well.”
The win was over a Bucknell squad which finished the regular season winning three of its final four league games to qualify for its sixth straight Patriot League Tournament.
“Their seniors have made it every year,” said Lambinus. “It says a lot about our girls to do what we’ve done and put ourselves in position to [compete for a championship] this year. It’s exciting. They played awesome today.”
Lehigh will be playing for its first league championship in women’s soccer. With it comes an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Mountain Hawks came out strong and nearly took the lead just over four minutes into the game when senior Liz Carlos unleashed a shot which looked ticketed for the far post. Bucknell goalkeeper Sandita McDermott made an incredible save, however, and stopped Hojnacki’s point-blank rebound attempt to keep the game scoreless.
Lehigh continued to have chances, while Mains was up to the task when called upon as well, including an impressive save off a Caitlin Holtz free kick midway through the first half.
It looked like Carlos gave Lehigh a 1-0 lead in the 34th minute when her rebound attempt crossed the goal line after her initial shot hit the crossbar, but she was whistled for off sides to the shagrin of the Lehigh faithful.
The up and down tempo continued into the second half, where Bucknell took early control. Just over five minutes in, Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year Christa Matlock was sprung in all alone, but Ardyn Olszko came back strong to force a corner kick before a shot got off.
While Lehigh had its goal called back in the first half, Bucknell’s came in the second stanza. It looked like the Bison had taken a lead in the 55th minute off a corner kick, but a foul was called on a Bucknell player who interfered with Mains. The Bison were celebrating near their bench thinking they had scored before the officials broke the news.
Lehigh took advantage five minutes later when Hojnacki corralled a feed from senior Lena Cannon, made a turn, and fired a laser into the corner of the net for a 1-0 lead at the 59:33 mark.
“It was a great play all the way through,” said Hojnacki. “Lena did a great job to bring the ball up the field. She found me and I got lucky to turn and find the back of the net.”
Bucknell continued to pour on the pressure, which included a number of sparkling chances. Matlock had one opportunity, which barely trickled wide in the 70th minute. The Bison continued to have chances, but a number went wide. When they were on target, Mains stood tall to preserve Lehigh’s first postseason victory since 2004.
“We’ve learned a lot this year about how to play with the lead,” said Lambinus. “They’ve done a great job now - later in the year - learning from those experiences and taking advantage of those opportunities. I thought we made some great decisions in the last five minutes of the game. We played the game the way it’s supposed to be played and we finished it off the right way.”
After Lehigh held a commanding 9-5 shot advantage at the half, Bucknell responded with a 13-5 advantage in the second half to hold the 18-14 edge at the final horn. An extremely physical game saw 11 fouls against Lehigh to eight for the Bison. Mains finished with eight saves for her third shutout of the season – and second straight – while McDermott made six stops for Bucknell.
The Mountain Hawks look to avenge their only Patriot League loss of the season when they play host Army on Sunday at 1 p.m. with the league championship and automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line.
“As a coach, it’s hard to talk about that right now because we were so focused on Bucknell,” said Lambinus. “It’s an exciting opportunity. The girls have worked hard to put ourselves in position. They should be proud of their accomplishments, but know we’ve still got one more game to go.”