Back Olivia Zitoli ’14 and the Heron defense did not allow a
goal in the final three months of the season. For her stellar
defensive play, Zitoli was named the NSCAA National Player
of the Year.
by Ken DeBolt
Defense Wins Championships. It’s cliché, but it’s cliché for a reason, because it’s true.
No team in the nation registered a higher percentage of shutouts this year (.875) than William Smith. The Herons logged a program record 21 shutouts in 24 matches, one shy of the NCAA record for shutouts in a season. William Smith produced 16 consecutive clean sheets to end the campaign, the third longest shutout streak in Division III women’s soccer history.
The heart and soul of this stingy crew were Chelsea Dunay ’14 and Olivia Zitoli ’14. A third team All-American, Dunay broke school records for wins in a season (23) and solo shutouts (18) as a goalkeeper while Zitoli earned first team All-America honors as the team’s center back. Additionally, Zitoli became just the second Heron to win the NSCAA National Player of the Year award.
The starting back line also included Brenna Kincaid ’15, a converted forward, playing her first season as a back, Emma Diehl ’17 and Bridget Westerman ’17. But it wasn’t just the starting five or even the defensive reserves, it was a whole team effort on defense for William Smith.
“Our team was dedicated to discipline this season,” says Zitoli. “It started with the forwards. They applied pressure up top and made it easier for the midfielders to defend, which made our job easier in the back. It wasn’t just the back line it was the whole 11 defending.”
Just two games into the season, William Smith was 1-1-0 and had given up four goals. Not exactly a prelude to a defensive juggernaut. The Herons gave fans an inkling of what they were truly capable of in the third match of the year against then top ranked and defending national champion Messiah College. The Falcons had never lost to the Herons and had eliminated William Smith in each of its past three national semifinal appearances. On Sept. 7, that all changed.
Messiah enjoyed an 11-5 advantage in shots, but the Herons defended exceptionally well, only allowing five shots on frame and all five were stopped by Dunay. All William Smith needed was one goal. In the 31st minute, Zoe Eth ’16 headed in a volley from Diehl to send the Herons to a 1-0 victory.
“During the week leading up to the Messiah game, we focused and trained a lot on defense and when we played them, everything just seemed to click,” says Dunay. “As we progressed through the season, our defense became stronger and stronger in every game.”
As the shutouts mounted, it would stand to reason that so did the pressure, but neither Dunay nor Zitoli give any hint that it was anything more than one game. Ninety minutes.
“We never really talked about the streak,” says Zitoli. “We were just committed to doing what we had to do to win. And we won a lot of games 1-0.”
In fact, 10 games fell in the Herons’ favor by a 1-0 count. And William Smith did it against a pressure cooker of a schedule, playing 11 of its 23 matches against teams ranked in the top 25 in the nation. The NCAA rated the Heron slate as the fourth toughest in the nation.
“I believe our defense was at our absolute best in the national championship game,” said Dunay. “I’ve never seen the team throw themselves at the ball to block shots, breakdown when defending, tackle, and fight so hard like we did in the national championship game. We fought and played our hearts out on that field.”