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Price, NU women claim Battle of the Bridge, clinch MAAC playoff spot

Rivalry matches are often beautiful for their unpredictability. Regardless of where two nearby nemeses rank before the game, the ensuing competition is fierce and emotions run high because pride and bragging rights are on the line. Even, explosive matches frequently result.

It took the Niagara Purple Eagles 101 minutes to overcome the Canisius Griffins, 1-0, on Wednesday night at Niagara Field, but the Purple Eagles were jubilant and relieved when red-shirt senior Haillie Price struck the dramatic winner 24 seconds into the second overtime, clinching a spot in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference postseason.

With a little urging from starting midfielder Laura Ortiz and a slight change in formation by Niagara head coach Peter Veltri, Price ran onto a pass from Laura Ortiz and shielded away a Canisius center back before snapping a shot over Griffs goalie Kailee DeFranks' left arm.

"Laura told me right after the first overtime, 'Price, let's run, let's run, let's go,'  and she sent that perfect ball in, and it was just a matter of getting that finish," the team's leading scorer said minutes after slotting the winner.

"Haillie Price is probably one of the fastest players in our conference, definitely the fastest on our team," added senior Hayley Besaw. "We like to play through balls to her in order for her to place the ball like that [game-winning goal]."

Niagara head coach Peter Veltri addresses the team. (Niagara Athletics)

Niagara head coach Peter Veltri addresses the team. (Niagara Athletics)

Despite missing her last three games due to injury, Price tallied her 10th goal of the season, the most a Purple Eagle has scored since Stephanie Gartley's 12 in 2008.

"If [Price] didn't miss the last three games, I think she'd be rewriting some record books," Veltri said. "I'm just happy for her coming back [from injury], as a fifth year senior, and beating her rival."

When asked where scoring an overtime game-winner fell among her collegiate accomplishments, Price's response was unequivocal.

"I think this is No. 1," she said. "I love beating Canisius, obviously it's the Battle of the Bridge, we came out on top, we were the better team, we fought harder and we wanted it more."

Haillie Price, who wore No. 20 last year before switching to No. 5, is the team's leader in goals. (Niagara Athletics)

Haillie Price, who wore No. 20 last year before switching to No. 5, is the team's leader in goals. (Niagara Athletics)

Besaw's brilliance: Hayley Besaw may have credited Price as Niagara's fastest player, but the senior from Lew-Port is likely the quickest. The Purple Eagles' Swiss Army knife, Besaw played outside back, in the center midfield and up front against Canisius, constantly pressuring the Griffins and using an array of cuts and turns to deceive defenders.

"Early on in her career we used to have discussions about finding a position for her," explained Veltri after the match. "Quickly I learned that's probably the worst thing -- because she's one of the few kids in all my time that can literally play any position on the field and be successful at it."

Besaw's best scoring chance came with 90 seconds left in regulation, when she eluded a defender on the left wing, cut back from the end line onto her right foot and cranked a shot that sailed over the crossbar from 10 yards away.

Niagara senior Hayley Besaw is a jack of all trades for head coach Peter Veltri. (Niagara Athletics)

Niagara senior Hayley Besaw is a jack of all trades for head coach Peter Veltri. (Niagara Athletics)

Despite several golden scoring chances going awry -- the Purple Eagles out-shot Canisius 16-5 overall, 9-3 on-goal -- Besaw and Veltri interpreted the dominance as a promising sign rather than a bleak "it just wasn't our night" situation.

"It almost felt more like [a goal] was going to come," Besaw said. "We were inches away multiple times, hit the goalkeeper, got rebounds, just couldn't place it."

"We just said to be patient and just to play," Veltri said. "We did not want to change who we are. There were a few times where we got hectic, because you do get frustrated -- that's why people [bunker down defensively]."

What's next for Niagara?: With a 6-2 conference record, Niagara leapfrogs Manhattan and Rider into second place before Saturday afternoon's Senior Day showdown (1 p.m., Niagara Field) against league-leader Monmouth.

"It's our Senior Day, our Purple Pride game," Price noted. "It's kind of a bittersweet thing -- it's my last game, it's Besaw's last game, all five of us [seniors]."

If the Purple Eagles can protect the No. 2 spot in the MAAC, they'll earn a quarterfinal bye and play a semifinal at home on Friday, Nov. 6. If Niagara finishes third or fourth, they'll host a conference quarterfinal on Oct. 31.

MAAC standings for women's soccer before Niagara beat Canisius on Wednesday night, but including the rest of Wednesday's games. (MAAC website)

MAAC standings for women's soccer before Niagara beat Canisius on Wednesday night, but including the rest of Wednesday's games. (MAAC website)

Canisius standouts: It was a valiant defensive effort for the Griffins, especially goalie DeFranks and the back four of Emily Czechowski, Hannah Chesney, Callie Good and Melanie Linsmair. Swedish freshman Ronja Gustafsson nearly shocked Niagara when she cranked a high 35-yard shot that forced NU goalie Claire Feiertag to backpedal and bat off her crossbar.

Otherwise, Canisius spent much of the match committing their midfielders to defensive responsibilities and failing to muster much sustained possession. Winning three corner kicks in overtime gave them a glimmer of hope, but no Griffin was able to truly test Feiertag.

Email Ben Tsujimoto at btsujimoto@buffnews.com

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