Last time a Southern Conference opponent earned a lead on the Elon University women’s soccer team, the Phoenix lost one of its two games on the season.
The second time around, Elon knew how to navigate the defensive-minded Davidson College Wildcats in the quarterfinals of the SoCon tournament Sunday, Nov. 3, on Rudd Field, topping the No. 7 Wildcats 3-1 on two late goals from sophomore forward Nicole Dennion to advance to the tournament semifinals Friday, Nov. 8.
Elon will take on No. 6 Wofford in what’s effectively a home game for the tournament hosts in Spartanburg, S.C. The Terriers topped the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Spartans on penalty kicks Sunday to advance to the semifinals.
Following the Davidson goal in the sixth minute — a low shot from Becca Fisher that beat a diving Sydney Branson — the Wildcats packed it in defensively attempting to keep the Phoenix out of goal for the remainder of the match.
“Up 1-0, their coach had made his mind up prior to the game that if they took the lead, they were going to sit in and make our life frustrating,” said Elon coach Chris Neal. “We’re not used to playing behind against a team that now sits in. It only happened one time to us earlier this year against The Citadel. So we had that experience behind us because that game, we kind of hit the panic button and started serving the ball into areas from places that weren’t going to work.”
Serves had been a problem in the first half, as Elon struggled to find chances before getting its first shot off in the 35th minute. But as the second half progressed, the Phoenix created more chances and finally broke through on a cross to senior forward Simi Dhaliwal in the 63rd minute.
“We had the ball in Davidson’s half most of the time, but our crosses were way off in the first half,” said sophomore Nicole Dennion. “We couldn’t get it across in the first half and that really hurt us. But in the second half I feel like we definitely made so many opportunities, got the ball in their half and just made it happen.”
After the Phoenix got on the board, the Davidson defense opened up and allowed Dennion, the Southern Conference’s leading scorer, to make runs at goal with room to operate.
“The message at halftime was to keep moving the ball, keep combining until we get it closer to goal, then look for the service,” Neal said. “We told them we weren’t going to get a lot of chances in this game because this team and the way they were defending. But if we could just get one, they would have to come out a little bit and that would open up more cracks specifically for Nicole Dennion.”
Dennion used those cracks to score what would be the eventual game-winner in the 86th minute, then score the insurance goal 85 seconds later to ensure the win for the Phoenix.
“We needed to get the ball to her feet in front of their back four,” Neal said. “There was no space behind them at all, so forget about that. We needed to get the ball to her in front of their back four and then she could turn and run around and cause problems. It was almost exactly the way we scripted it. She kind of put the team on her back with those two goals and made it happen.”
The goals were Dennion’s 14th and 15th of the season, keeping her ahead of Furman’s sophomore forward Stephanie DeVita for the conference lead.
Branson and junior goalkeeper Kate Murphy split time in goal for the Phoenix. Murphy had missed the previous four games with a leg injury.
The wind played a role in Neal’s decision to pull Branson for Murphy, as the Phoenix had their backs to the blustery wind in the second half.
“Sydney did a great job in the first half,” Neal said. “I was going to start Sydney no matter what simply because we haven’t lost a game since Sydney has been our starter. But we had the wind behind us and typically, Kate’s distribution on punts and goal kicks are a little bit longer than Sydney’s, so we wanted mother nature on our side. But Kate was ready. She’s a captain on our team and she looked mentally ready to lead this team.”
Elon’s trip to the SoCon semifinals marks the third time in the last four years the Phoenix have reached the match. Elon has never reached the final in its 11-year tenure in the conference.