Winning the national championship in her freshman year at William Smith College was something former Masconomet soccer captain Leah Connerty never imagined, but the dream of every college athlete came true when the Herons captured the NCAA Division 3 title by beating Trinity of Texas, 2-0 in San Antonio in early December.
After losing their opening game to TCNJ, 2-1 on August 30, the Herons won 23 in a row. The Liberty League champs for the seventh straight time, William Smith did it with 14 freshmen on the roster.
“It was a surreal experience,” said Connerty, who is from Boxford and was a key member of the Chieftains for three years. “When I decided to play at William Smith I knew the program was always pretty competitive. Right away I felt there was something special about this team; everyone believed we’d have a really good season, but we remained humble. We all went into the season with a very serious attitude and were willing to work hard to achieve our goals.”
Connerty was center midfielder at Masco and for her Aztec club team, but moved to forward this past season. She saw action until needing knee surgery to remove extra cartilage, but remained with the team every step of the way.
“I was on the field with my teammates celebrating when we won the national title,” said Connerty. “I first injured my knee during my senior year in high school, but it wasn’t serious, and I thought it would get better. What happened was the initial injury led to more problems, and I had to get it taken care of.
“The rehabilitation was six weeks, and I’m done with it now. My knee is structurally sound, and I probably wouldn’t have needed surgery if I wasn’t playing, but in college the season is very rigorous, and it got worse. We felt it was better to take care of it now, and I’m already training to get ready for next season.”
Connerty began playing soccer when she was four years old and fell in love with the game. She is planning to play for Aztec this summer and be in top shape for her sophomore year.
“I’m not sure if they intend to keep me at forward,” said Connerty, who plans to become a physical therapist. “I’ve played everywhere but goalie in past years but mostly at midfield. This was an incredible season; it’s hard to find the right words to describe it. You strive for a national championship and make sacrifices along the way. I’ve missed so many events over the years because I had a soccer commitment.
Herons coach Aliceann Wilber founded the program and has been at the helm for 34 years. Wilber is the first women’s collegiate soccer coach to record 400 wins (480-125-54), and this was William Smith’s second national championship with the first coming in 1988.
The team beat Cabrini, 5-0, Oneonta State, 1-0, and avenged the loss to TCNJ, 1-0 to advance to the quarterfinals. The Herons shut out Ithaca, 1-0 on November 24 to earn a trip to San Antonio. In the semifinal round they posted a 1-0 victory over Capital to get to the championship game.
“Our team was like one big family, and we all wanted to win it for our three seniors,” said Connerty. “They had gone to the Final Four two other times, and we wanted them to end their careers with the national title. As one of the freshmen, I’ve never wanted anything as much as that championship for them.”