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Eastern Edges Keene State In Penalty Kicks To Win Championship

Eastern Edges Keene State In Penalty Kicks To Win Championship

KEENE, N.H. -- The second-seeded Eastern Connecticut State University women's soccer team qualified for its third straight NCAA Division III tournament with a 3-2 penalty-kick shootout win over top-seeded Keene State College in the championship game of the 2011 Little East Conference tournament Sunday afternoon at the Owl Stadium Complex. The game is officially recorded as a 0-0 double-overtime tie.

The LEC tournament title is the fourth in nine years for Eastern (11-8-1) – the Warriors are 3-1 in title games against Keene State (13-7-2) -- and provides it with an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, the program's fifth NCAA appearance in 12 seasons under head coach Chris D'Ambrosio.

The teams played 110 scoreless minutes before penalty kicks decided the 2011 champion. Sophomore Nicole Leonard (Rutherford, N.J.), senior Jo-Ann Merheb (Bethel, Conn.) and junior Kelly Wallace (South Windsor, Conn.) converted PKs for Eastern and senior goalkeeper Theresa Pagnozzi (Waterford, Conn.) made saves on three of Keene's five attempts.

Shooting second, Eastern trailed 2-1 after the first three rounds of PKs, but Pagnozzi made a critical save on Alex Haley and Merheb converted her ensuing attempt to tie it at 2-2. Pagnozzi, named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, then got a hand on Keene's fifth attempt with a dive to her right to knock it off the post and keep the competition tied, and Wallace sent Eastern to the NCAA tournament when she cleanly beat Keene senior keeper Megan Dempsey with a drive to the upper-left corner of the net.

"Both teams came out attacking, and had a couple of good (scoring) chances," said D'Ambrosio. "Theresa (Pagnozzi) made a couple of great saves and their keeper pulled one off the goal line, but it was more of a defensive and midfield game. Both defenses were tough to crack. It's a shame," noted D'Ambrosio, "that you've got to go that far and get into penalty kicks, but it was a great conference final."

Eastern's starting defense of seniors Amber Petrizzo (Plainville, Conn.) and Sam Konopka (Hebron, Conn.), sophomore Megan Godwin (Manchester, Conn.) and freshman Whitney Mantel (Stamford, Conn.) -- spent a large portion of the match neutralizing Keene's offensive pressure. Offensively, Eastern junior Daniela Marchitto (Orange, Conn.), the team scoring leader with 15 goals was rendered ineffective due to a left knee injury sustained in Friday's semifinal win and aggravated early in Sunday's final.

Behind the offensive efforts of junior Joan Hamel, Keene had more and better chances to crack the scoreless tie, especially in the second half and overtime, but the 5-foot-9 inch Pagnozzi made a handful of strong plays to keep the match scoreless. One came early in the second half and two came in the first overtime, but she saved her best play for the waning seconds of the second overtime when she denied Hamel's one-on-one opportunity by coming off her line and cutting down the angle on a breakaway. In the first overtime, Hamel found room in the box and headed a free kick that sailed just over the cross bar. Minutes later, Pagnozzi stopped a low shot by Hamel with a dive to the right post.

In the second half, Eastern had at least two prime chances. The first followed a corner kick by Eastern junior Chelsea Downer (Colchester, Conn.). Eastern took a shot in the box that Dempsey knocked down with a dive to her right toward the left post, then reached back to grab the loose ball just before it crossed the goal line. On the second one, Keene junior back Jane Walsh headed an Eastern shot off the line.

Eastern won for the fourth time in five matches against Keene in the LEC final, with three of the wins coming on Keene's field. In 2003, the Warriors won their first championship with a penalty-kick decision over Keene.

The Owls had won all seven of their regular-season conference matches – including a 2-0 verdict at home over Eastern Oct. 8 – and had eliminated fourth-seeded Massachusetts Boston on penalty kicks in Friday's semifinal. Eastern finished second in the conference and edged third-seeded Western Connecticut, 1-0, in Friday's semifinal at the Mansfield Outdoor Complex. The shutout was the fifth straight for Eastern, which has played Pagnozzi and junior Mackenzie MacLeod (Northfield) in goal for one half each in the last four matches.

Sunday, MacLeod shut out Keene in the first half before Pagnozzi played the second half and overtime and was in net for the penalty-kick session. Last year's starting goalie on a 16-1-5 team, Pagnozzi saw her first action of 2011 in the second half of a7-0 victory at Manhattanville College 11 days ago.She started and gained credit for a 6-0 win over UMass Dartmouth on the final day of the regular season a week ago Saturday and was credited with the 1-0 win over Western in the tournament semifinals Friday when she played the second half.

It marked the second time in three years that the Eastern men and women have captured LEC tournament titles. Yesterday, the men won their third crown in five years with a 1-0 home victory over Keene State In 2009, the men edged UMass Dartmouth, 1-0, at home and the women defeated Keene, 1-0, at Keene, on the same day.

The location of Eastern's first-round NCAA tournament game will be announced Monday.