For the 17th time in the 28-year history of the North Coast Athletic Conference, the Denison Big Red are champions. DU held off top-seed Wittenberg 11-9 on Saturday afternoon, punching its ticket to the 2012 NCAA Division III Tournament.
This year's championship victory was trademarked by a tremendous defensive effort that made poignant adjustments following their 14-12 loss to this same Tiger squad just over a week ago.
The first half was played nip-and-tuck and neither team managed to take more than a one-goal lead. DU held a 5-4 lead at the break thanks to goals by Molly Sbrega, Lisa Feroli, Olivia Shiland, and free-position goals by Carly Tschantz and Alex Thurner.
Early in the second half, two goals by the Tigers would even the score at 6-6 with just over 20 minutes to play.
That's the moment when the Big Red defense kicked into high gear and the ball would barely see the Wittenberg side of the field again. The moment the Tigers gained possession, Denison swarmed, usually forcing an errant pass from the home team. Wittenberg cleared the ball at a rate of 57 percent and 16 of the Tigers' 27 turnovers came in the second half.
The Big Red offense got the game's first run going with 18:53 to play when Sbrega scored off a pass from Thurner. Just over a minute later Thurner notched her second goal of the game, lifting DU to its first two-goal lead of the day.
A critical six minutes would pass with DU controlling possession and with 10:25 remaining, first-year Molly Chapman scored her first goal of the day off a pass from Sbrega, putting Denison on top 10-7.
The Tigers would answer with 8:34 remaining when Erin Guiliano scored via an 8-meter attempt but more precious time would elapse and with 5:23 left, Feroli provided the dagger, scoring her 42nd goal of the season while putting her team on top, 11-8.
Over the last five minutes Denison's defense continued to tighten and the Tigers managed just one shot attempt, coming with 25 second left. That shot by Alie Marousek found the back of the net, but a comeback would not be in the cards for the Tigers as the final horn sounded with Denison prevailing 11-9.
Sbrega and Feroli led the team in points with four. Sbrega scored two goals and added two assists to go along with her three ground balls. Feroli posted her seventh hat-trick of the season while gathering two ground balls.
Shiland ended with two goals and Thurner posted two goals and one assist, giving her 10 points for the tournament. She was named to the NCAC's All-Tournament team along with Tschantz, Chapman and Feroli.
Grace Bodenmann turned in five saves for Denison while Wittenberg goalie Katie Bondy posted 12 saves for the Tigers.
Denison improves to 14-4 and will advance to the NCAA Tournament for the 15th time in program history. The selection show is scheduled to air on NCAA.COM at 9:30 p.m. on Sunday (May 6). The first round is scheduled for Wednesday (May 9) at a times and locations to be determined. Follow @DenisonSports on Twitter to be the first to know who Denison's opponent will be.