NEWTON, Mass. -- Most teams talk about trying to build through a season to the point that they’re playing their best soccer in November. As the bags of ice and weary limps at the Newton Soccer Field on Sunday could attest, the truth of it is the teams that win at this time of year are often those who simply play the best they can.
After a season’s worth of bumps and bruises, Boston College’s best still looks pretty good.
Headlined by continued stellar play from a sophomore who may eventually go down as the best player in program history, No. 2 Boston College beat Hofstra 3-1 on Sunday in the second round of the NCAA tournament. With the win, the Eagles advance to the Sweet 16 for the sixth time in the past seven seasons, a statistical suggestion of just what kind of place the program now occupies in the sport.
But as much as both that record of consistency and the world-class talents of midfielder Kristie Mewis, who scored the first goal and assisted on the final goal, represent the program’s white-collar status within the soccer community, Sunday’s win also told the story of its blue-collar roots. Because for all its stars, Boston College owes a debt of gratitude to a walk-on freshman who played like anything but either of those two labels.
Making her first career start, and in just her ninth appearance overall, freshman Zoe Lombard played the full 90 minutes in the middle of Boston College’s back line and helped neutralize Hofstra’s Salma Tarik, an imposing center forward with 12 goals on the season for the Pride. Just for good measure, Lombard also got behind Hofstra’s back line on a free kick to put home the eventual game-winning goal at the back post just before the end of the first half -- the first goal of her college career and one that came with both Mewis and star forward Victoria DiMartino claiming a few extra minutes of rest on the bench.
Not bad for a kid from Florida who came to one of Boston College’s summer camps as a high schooler with hopes of impressing the coaches enough to earn an opportunity to stick around.
“Zoe’s been incredible at a critical time of the year,” Boston College coach Alison Foley said after Friday’s first-round comeback win in which the freshman came on as a key second-half substitute. “It’s been difficult, what she’s done, because she hasn’t had a lot of playing time in nonconference and early ACC play. For her to come in in our most difficult games ... is really a true testament of everything she’s done during our practices but also outside our practices.
“She stays after all the time and works with individual defending. She’s the first one -- even when she’s not playing, she’s up in the office asking questions.”
Lombard was called upon at all in the first two rounds because of an ankle injury sustained in training last week by junior standout Alyssa Pember. Mostly an attacking player until that camp at Boston College, where Foley suggested a move to defense might aid her aspirations of competing in college, Lombard played a little on the back line for her prep team as a senior (winning a state title). But it’s difficult to imagine too many less experienced defenders took the field anywhere in the nation during Sunday’s second-round games.
“I tried to just think of it as any other game because when you’re nervous you get kind of panicky,” Lombard said of any anxiety about starting. “I tried to just look at it as any other game. I’ve been practicing, and [I wanted to] just show my team I can play for them.”
Inexperience aside, at 5-foot-10 with the kind of speed and athleticism that helped her excel in sprints and long jump as a high school track star, Lombard has all the tools to be a standout in the middle of the back line. And in demonstrating that those tools outweighed any nerves as a substitute in both the recent ACC tournament and Friday’s win against Boston University, she allowed Foley the flexibility to put out a lineup that made the Eagles their most dangerous against Hofstra. Instead of having to play senior co-captain Hannah Cerrone in Pember’s place in the middle of the back line and move senior Natalie Crutchfield from forward to Cerrone’s place at outside back, she could leave the two seniors in positions where their speed cause the most problems for opponents.
So it was that Cerrone found herself sprinting with the ball through Hofstra’s defense on a 30-yard run that led to Mewis scoring the first goal on a beautifully struck shot from a tough angle at the edge of the 18-yard box.
“When you’re in a 4-3-3 system, part of what you need to do is get your outside backs involved in the attack,” Foley said. “Both [left outside back] Alaina Beyar and Hannah Cerrone have incredible speed. We’re at our best when they’re confident and they’re going forward, they’re making the other team follow them and they’re making the forwards come back and defend them.”
Pember has not been ruled out of next week’s third-round game against West Virginia, and the Eagles would certainly benefit from having the services of one of the nation’s better central defenders. And it's not just those on crutches battling injuries -- as Sunday's game wore on, a season's worth of wear and tear seemed to keep players like Crutchfield and senior co-captain Chelsea Regan on the ground for a few extra seconds each time they went down. But from freshman midfielder Kate McCarthy stepping up in just her second start to neutralize Colonial Athletic Association player of the year Tiffany Yovino to Lombard looking like she was made for this stage, Boston College made the most of what it has, experience and health be what they may.
“I mean, you can look at it like you’re physically beat, but you try to take the good things from having the season behind you,” Cerrone said. “We look at it as we have experience behind us. I think everyone on our team was prepared for the physical battle today. As far as injuries go, we have a week now to ice them, so we should be 100 percent on Friday.”
She offered the last line with the grin of someone who hasn’t seen 100 percent since the leaves turned in New England and won't see it again until long after the snow comes. But as she sat next to Lombard in the press conference, she also offered it with the grin of someone who gets to play another game next week against West Virginia.