WATERVILLE — One game shy of competing for its ultimate goal, the Thomas College men’s soccer team instead saw that endeavor come screeching to a halt.

The top-seeded Terriers fell in the North Atlantic Conference championship game, losing to No. 6 New England College, 1-0, in penalty kicks Saturday at Smith Field.

Thomas (12-4-2), the defending champion, was seeking a fifth title in seven seasons to allow it to pursue a first-ever Division III championship. Instead, it will be the Pilgrims (11-9-1) — who outscored Thomas 4-2 in the penalty stanza — advancing to the national tournament after sealing its first NAC title.

“No regrets. Our guys, we fought and we battled through,” Thomas coach Chris Parsons said. “If you’re going to lose in a conference championship, you can’t go any further than penalty kicks.”

The game went to penalty kicks after two overtimes decided nothing — though not without some suspense along the way. Pilgrims keeper Max Danis (10 saves) made big back-to-back saves, one on a close shot by Tevin Reid, while NEC couldn’t take advantage of an out-of-position keeper a minute later despite two cracks at the ball. With 1:15 to go in the second overtime, Thomas’ DJ Nicholas had an excellent cross to Reid, but the junior’s header sailed just high.

“We had some good chances in the overtimes,” Parsons said. “Unfortunately, didn’t score on them. … This game can be brutal at times with the results.”

NEC got goals from Cooper Valinski, Ronsard Monsamba and Said Haji on its first four penalties, while Thomas only got scores from Willie Clemons and Rai Sampson, giving Conor Douglass a chance to win the game, and the title, for NEC.

The junior picked the left side of the net. Keeper Drew Martin (six saves) did too, but the ball just eluded his grasp, much to Douglass’ relief.

“I had confidence going in, we’ve been practicing all week,” Douglass said. “I hesitated a little bit, I got scared. Until I saw it hit the netting.”

Douglass didn’t make it far before the mob of NEC players engulfed him, while several Thomas players fell to the ground, stunned.

“It’s great to win. … I’m really happy for our players,” NEC coach Dave DeCew said. “They’re obviously really excited about it. It’s a great result for us.”

The Terriers entered the game with wins in seven of their last eight games, a perfect 9-0 conference mark and a powerful offense that averaged 3.5 goals per game, but right from the start NEC, a 2-0 loser Oct. 22, gummed up the works. The Pilgrims never let the Terriers, a team stacked with speed, beat them over the top with loose balls, and though Thomas had close misses, it was forced to settle for lower-percentage crosses and corners.

“They found a way,” DeCew said. “We made some small adjustments that may have helped, but players just stepped up and did a great job defensively. And we got some good bounces.”

Even before the overtimes both teams had good looks. For Thomas, Adam LaBrie had a header saved in the 15th minute, and Nicholas had one of the best looks for Thomas in the 78th when he was set up by two quick passes but fired too far left. NEC’s Haji seemed to have a goal in the 85th minute, but was called offsides.

“It’s one of those days,” Parsons said. “We’re happy with our performance today, we’re not happy with the result. But we’ll live with it, we’ll come out next year and we’ll battle again.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM