Alone In Front! Birchard's Free Kick Gives CMS Men's Soccer Sole Possession of First Place

Alone In Front! Birchard's Free Kick Gives CMS Men's Soccer Sole Possession of First Place

CLAREMONT, Calif. - Sophomore back William Birchard scored on a free kick with 7:54 remaining as the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps men's soccer team defeated Redlands 1-0 on Wednesday evening in a battle for first place in the SCIAC at Pritzlaff Field.

With the win, CMS now stands at 14-2 on the year and 11-2 in SCIAC play, while Redlands falls to 12-4 overall and 10-3 in the league. The Stags clinched at least a share of the league title and can win it outright with a win or a tie at Occidental on Saturday, while also earning their first two-game sweep of Redlands in 20 years, since the 1998 squad pulled off the feat.

The shutout was also the 13th of the season for CMS, which entered the game ranked third in the nation in goals against average (0.26). The 13 shutouts, all from freshman goalie Jacob Mays, tie a school record first set in 1985 and matched in 1986. 

The game-winning goal came after Redlands was whistled for a foul 25 yards away from straight out. Birchard stood over his kick as he considered his options, and then made up his mind with a perfectly-placed blast into the lower left corner into the side netting. 

"I was going to try to go over the wall," said Birchard. "But then I saw their big center back get in the wall, so I thought, might as well try to lace this bottom-left corner, and it ended up working out."

The game featured many back-and-forth momentum swings, as both teams had quality chances. Sophomore Nate Huntington got free at the back post for a diving header early in the second half, and was denied by a spectacular sprawling save by Redlands goalie Noah Natividad. Sophomore forward Daniel Rohde got behind the defense but Natividad came off his line to smother the shot off his foot near the top of the 18. Junior forward Cole Smith got loose for a header near the top of the six, that went just over the crossbar.

Just when it seemed, though, that CMS had Redlands pinned back, the Bulldogs swung the momentum and the Stags had to withstand 10 minutes of pressure in their own end. Mays had to make a diving stop in the 66th minute off a shot from Steve Acuna, while the Bulldogs had three corner kicks in a five-minute span, before their final attempt in the 71st minute saw Jesus Avalos miss wide left and the Stags were able to catch their breath and get the ball down to its offensive end again. 

CMS finished with a close 13-10 edge in shots and a 6-3 edge in corner kicks in a tightly-played contest. Natividad had four saves for Redlands in the losing cause, while Mays had three to get his 13th shutout of the year, all of which have required him to make four saves or less.  

The back-and-forth momentum swings and high stakes led to a high-pressure atmosphere that Birchard thinks will help the Stags as they get ready for the postseason next week.

"It was electric," he said. "It was really what we need to get used to, because Redlands is a top 10 side in the nation, one of the best. So to play against them at this high level, where it's all on the line, was a stepping stone for us, for sure."

The road game at Occidental on Saturday will give CMS the chance to finish as outright champions and the top seed in the SCIAC tournament, which opens with the semifinal round on Thursday. The Tigers, though, won the first meeting against CMS 2-0 and could take the top seed in the conference tournament with a win by pulling even with the Stags in a two-way tie, although Redlands could make it a three-way tie with a win over Cal Lutheran, in which case the top three seeds would be determined by tiebreaker, since all three teams would be 2-2 against each other.