West Windsor, N.J. – It was not supposed to end that way. Heading into the post-season with an 11-2-2 record, the women’s soccer team faced Essex County College in the semifinal, played on Essex’s home turf on Oct. 28. The Vikings had suffered only one loss in October, way back on October 1.
What happened next goes into the “agony of defeat” category. With the Vikings down 2-1 at the half, the next 45 minutes proved devastating as Essex took off and could not be stopped. One of Mercer’s go-to defenders, Chelsea Johnson, had been ejected with a red card early in the game, so the Vikings were one-player down for the remainder. When the dust settled, Essex came away the winner by a score of 7-3.
Head Coach Michelle Ogborn-Haywood still shakes her head when she thinks about it. “This was a great group of girls and by far the best team I have had the pleasure to coach since I started at Mercer four seasons ago. We couldn't have been in better shape and we couldn't have worked better as a team. We just had one bad game out of the entire season and it came at the worst possible time and ended it all for us,” she said.
Still, Ogborn-Haywood is a coach who always looks to the bright side. “We had a terrific year. We had a lot of great wins and did well all the way around.”
From the start, the women worked hard on fundamentals in practice and gradually stepped up the tempo of their game. “As they improved their skills and got better individually, their confidence and cohesiveness as a unit really showed. You could see it on the field and we could feel it from the sidelines,” Ogborn-Haywood said.
While they won a number of games by sizeable margins, there were also some showdowns won by a single goal, where defense became critical.
“There were some really dramatic wins and plenty of reasons to celebrate,” Ogborn-Haywood said.
She notes that positive leadership from the sophomores carried the team’s momentum forward, especially the three team captains, Samantha Hirthler, Colleen Murphy and Angelina Buzgo.
“Each of the captains brought something special to the field," she said. "Samantha was an awesome defender who could deliver the ball exactly where we wanted it every time. Colleen added leadership verbally, keeping everyone together and relaxed. Angelina also added to the communication on the field and was one of the best defenders I have worked with.”
Ogborn-Haywood says that the bonding among the players allowed her and assistant coaches Erika Juricic and Angelica Modica to concentrate on the skills, strategy and conditioning required for 90 minutes of college level play.
“Especially for the freshmen, the game at the college level is far more intense. They have to be ready physically and mentally. These girls listened and responded. We had a mass of talent and commitment, so it was a banner year in that way,” Ogborn-Haywood said.
But the season’s abrupt ending haunts them. “Unfortunately, as with any sport, you can rock the season and just end up with one bad game at a bad time. That's what happened to us. But we must move forward,” Ogborn-Haywood stresses.
A 1992 MCCC alumna who went on to play at the University of West Florida, Coach Ogborn-Haywood bids a fond farewell to a group of sophomores she is not likely to forget. “A great group will be moving on. That part really hurts,” she said, but adds that the coaching staff knows it has done their job. “Mercer is a great starting point for athletes who plan to play soccer at their transfer schools. I wish them the best as they leave the Mercer nest.”
Four players were singled out for NJCAA honors. Samantha Barlow and Angelina Buzgo were named three and four respectively in Region 19’s Top Five. Both were named to the All-Region First Team, along with Samantha Hirthler. Taymani Rivera-Kissling was named to the All-Region Second Team.