Correction: In a previous version of this article, it was stated that this was Anna Hamner's first collegiate start. This is not true. Junior Kelly Degnan and senior McKenna Dalfonso's names were also spelled incorrectly. Elon News Network regrets these errors.
After holding the lead for almost an entire half of play at Rudd Field, it looked like the Elon University women’s soccer team was going to win its first game in over a month. However, a late goal by the University of North Carolina Wilmington forced a 1-1 draw Sept. 21.
The only win on the season for the Phoenix came last month against Wofford College. Coming into Thursday's Coastal Athletic Association matchup, Elon had lost four consecutive matches.
Elon head coach Neil Payne said he felt like Elon handled the Seahawks’ attacks well for large portions of the match. However, Payne said his key takeaway from tonight was that Elon has to learn to put teams away.
“UNCW was going to create a bit of chaos in the box,” Payne said. “Which I felt like we dealt with most of the night, but it just takes one moment. And it’s not necessarily about that one goal, it’s more about us being more ruthless in the moments leading up to that goal.”
While stagnant offense plagued both clubs early on, a slightly adjusted defense anchored by junior goalie Anna Hamner proved to be reliable, as the backline blocked UNCW’s first shot attempt from Viktoria Hankova in the 10th minute.
Freshman forward Grace Gelhaus notched the first shot on goal for the Phoenix, however, the Seahawks’ graduate student goalkeeper Hanna Wise proved formidable as that would be just the first of three saves on the night for her.
Gelhaus was relentless in her attack. She put on an impressive offensive display as she led the Phoenix in shots with three. In the 42nd minute, Gelhaus launched a shot into the box that bounced off a Seahawk defender into their own goal, allowing Elon to take a 1-0 lead going into the half.
Coming out of the break, the Phoenix had good momentum. Good ball movement allowed for solid looks from Gelhaus, junior forward Kelly Degnan and senior defender Emilia Cappellett, but the Phoenix couldn’t manage to notch a second goal and get that extra cushion.
As the Elon offense began to look a little sluggish and shots started to come at a premium, the Seahawks found an opportunity to capitalize.
After a save by Hamner in the 85th minute, it looked like the Phoenix might leave Rudd with a much-needed victory. However, on the rebound, UNCW sophomore forward Issa Bryant found an opening and notched the game-tying goal. Neither team could generate a look for the rest of the match.
While the match ended in a draw, key defensive adjustments out of the gate from the Phoenix proved warranted. For the first time in four games, the Phoenix gave up less than two goals. Up until the 85th minute, it even looked like a possible shutout was on the horizon.
As a four-year starter decorated with defensive accolades, senior goalkeeper McKenna Dalfonso not taking the pitch in either half came as a bit of a surprise. If she plays one half in any shutout, Dalfonso would surpass the Elon record of 20 and become the program’s all-time leader.
Instead of Dalfonso, Hamner saw a full 90 minutes of action for the first time in her career and collected a save while she was at it.
Hamner had a next-man-up mentality when she learned she would be starting today.
“Whether it's go out there and play or whether it's be the loudest person on the sideline, I just try and do whatever the team needs me to do in the moment,” Hamner said. “It's different being out there because you’ve got a lot of pressure on you, but that's something that I welcome.”
Payne said during their practices recently he has been challenging his players to compete for spots. He said over the last week Hamner had been working very hard and subsequently earned an opportunity tonight.
Hamner said while there is still room for growth when it comes to crunch-time situations, she felt like the Elon defense really was able to provide an extra layer of protection for her tonight.
“We have a very talented backline who is just like a brick wall in front of me,” Hamner said.
Payne said while there are other areas for improvement, he was also impressed by the Elon defense.
“It's probably the best we've played as a backline,” Payne said. “We were committed.”
Payne said while he would have liked to see more composure from his team at the end of the game, he was pleased with the performance, even if it was just for portions of the game.
“We moved the ball well, we played to our strengths,” Payne said. “But more than anything, we just had an intensity and energy that you need to win in our conference.”
While CAA play just began and more opportunities lie ahead, the Phoenix still find themselves in a substantial hole just under halfway through their 2023 campaign. Today’s draw did earn them their first point in the CAA pool, but they are second to last in the standings with lots of ground to make up.
Elon will have another opportunity to get their first conference win when they travel to face William & Mary at 1 p.m. Sept. 24.