This it it: Women’s soccer earns revenge, trip to Final Four

By Sean Ahmed

In the blink of an eye, it was over. The Maroons were returning to the Final Four.

Having survived the “Group of Death,” the women’s soccer team is headed to Greensboro, North Carolina to take on top-ranked Messiah (20–0–1) on Friday at 1:30 p.m. The Maroons (18–2–2), winners of 10 straight and unbeaten in their last 14, dug deep to blast past two of the nation’s toughest teams this past weekend, downing defending national champion Wheaton (IL) 2–1 before taking out sixth-ranked Puget Sound 1–0 in overtime.

“I couldn’t be prouder,” head coach Amy Reifert said. “In some ways, making it to the Final Four is harder [than winning it all]. For us to really fight the wind in the first half against Puget and then come out in the second half and really control it was really fabulous. We never really got frustrated, and we just kept believing we’re going to score.”

Chief regional rival Wheaton (IL) (21–3) came out slugging Friday, determined to put Chicago away early by attacking aggressively and putting a great deal of physical pressure on the Maroons. For a while it seemed as though the home team wouldn’t be able to resist, as they allowed the Thunder a handful of quality scoring chances in the first half.

Just five minutes in, Wheaton third-year striker Laura Koontz threatened with a dangerous cross that bypassed the Chicago defense but was eventually cleared past the endline. Fourth-year keeper Andrea Przybysz tapped out the ensuing corner kick, one of seven for Wheaton on the day, and the Thunder kicked the rebound over the net.

Five minutes later, the Chicago defense showed why it has been so tough to score on this season. After Przybysz tripped on the muddy and half-frozen pitch trying to clear a bouncing ball, and fourth-year right back Kay Saul missed her clearance, Koontz collected the ball behind the defense and had the goal at her mercy from eight out. Covering her backline mates perfectly, however, fourth-year left back Ellen Fitzgerald swooped in and headed out the left-footed shot to keep the game scoreless. The back five for the Maroons has been dominant since a 2–0 loss to Carnegie on October 2.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we have the best defense in the country,” fourth-year midfielder Monica Michelotti said.

With less than 25 minutes left, a Wheaton free kick just outside of the box was kicked clear over the crossbar, and with 10 left another shot ended up rolling just past a diving Przybysz and ultimately outside the post.

The Thunder ended up outshooting Chicago 10–6 in the half, and even though they only managed to get two of those attempts on net, they dictated the pace and sent Chicago back to the locker room needing to regroup.

“At the beginning of Wheaton, we had no footing. We couldn’t cut the ball, couldn’t defend because of the field conditions,” Reifert said. “That sort of put us on our back heels, so instead of being aggressive and running through balls before they become dangerous, we had to let them come at us.”

Just three-and-a-half minutes into the new period, the Maroons had turned the tables. After first-year right mid Olivia Ndyabagye drew a foul just outside the right edge of the box, Saul settled and sent a curling set piece over everybody and just into the far post to give Chicago the 1–0 lead. It was Saul’s first career goal.

The Maroons controlled things from there, winning the midfield battle and yielding just two shots on net the rest of the way. Having been double-marked all game long, fourth-year left mid Jacqui de Leon put the game away in the 74th minute, collecting a bouncing ball about 30 yards up the sideline, beating her defender to the endline, and sending a perfectly placed cross to third-year midfielder Sally Hall, who knocked the ball in for her first goal of the season. De Leon’s assist was her fifth in four games and 10th of the year.

Up 2–0 and with time ticking down to the seconds, the Thunder scored a trash-time goal, as fourth-year striker Jen Binger tallied her 17th of the season with eight seconds left. It was too little, too late as Chicago earned revenge for last year’s playoff loss to Wheaton and advanced to the sectional finals.

“Wheaton has always been one of our biggest rivals,” Michelotti said. “We’ve knocked each other out of the tournament every year since I’ve been here, and it’s always a battle when we play. It feels great to go out avenging our loss—and hurt players—last year, and beating the defending national champions is also a great confidence booster.”

The Maroons hosted Puget Sound (18–2–2), winners of an 8–7 shootout against Macalester in the Friday late game, Saturday in a rematch of the 2003 Elite Eight showdown at UPS. In that game, the Maroons rallied from a 1–0 deficit and ended up winning halfway through the first overtime on fourth-year center defender Diana Connett’s second tally of the match.

Though Chicago didn’t need to come back in this year’s game, the two squads did provide another overtime thriller. The Maroons got a few quality chances in the first half, but the Puget Sound defense demonstrated the same form it had in shutting out their 20 previous opponents, challenging headers and having as many as eight players right around the net.

With the wind at their back in the second half, however, the Maroons took advantage and put the pressure on. Fourth-year striker Renee Neuner had a 62nd-minute breakaway, but her shot from just inside the top of the box bounced low to Loggers fourth-year keeper Erin Williams, who smothered the chance.

Two minutes later, de Leon was fouled right outside the left edge of the box and sent a right-footed in-swinger that was only partially cleared out. Connett’s sliding second-chance shot went right to the keeper.

With four-and-a-half minutes left in regulation, the Maroons got another chance, this time set up by second-year striker Christine Farmer. Ndyabagye’s throw-in found Farmer, who turned and beat her defender to the byline. Farmer’s cross bounced off Neuner, whose back was to the net, and bounced out to fourth-year midfielder Monica Michelotti, who sent her shot over the net.

The Maroons made full use of the wind at their backs in overtime and controlled play, not allowing a single Puget Sound shot. Neuner had the first Chicago chance three minutes in, sending a cross from the right endline that scraped the crossbar and traveled parallel to the net before finally being cleared out.

The 2003 Division III Player of the Year is rarely denied more than once. Neuner would make the most of her second chance.

Farmer, battling a hamstring injury all weekend, continued her recent dominance, beating her defender along the right endline and sending a cross out to first-year midfielder Siggy Nachtergaele. The newcomer earned her third postseason assist in four games, redirecting the ball to Neuner who provided one of her quintessential tap-ins to send Chicago onward.

Though Farmer didn’t get the assist, she was a big reason the Maroons were able to put away a very competitive Puget Sound team.

“Huge. Huge,” Reifert said. “In the first half, she didn’t know if she could sprint. But she got stretched out, said she felt great, and absolutely her play in the second half—Farmer said, ‘Hop on my back.’”

Chicago now faces soccer powerhouse Messiah. The Falcons are sending both their men’s and women’s teams to the Final Four this year. The Maroons have never faced the Pennsylvanians, who play a possession-oriented, indirect style of play, in direct contrast to what was seen in the Wheaton game. Like Chicago, Messiah is no stranger to the national semifinals, having been there three of the last four years, only falling short in 2003 when the Maroons went to the national championship game.

Chicago will have one obvious edge over the other three teams: Their squad knows how fleeting every chance can be.

“Everyone that was on the team two years ago remembers when we were within 29 seconds of winning a national championship,” Michelotti said. “To have come so far and get so close is a feeling that I will never be able to forget and has been motivation for every senior since then. We have grown so much as a team since two years ago, and the fact that we have so many upperclassmen and solid leadership with playoff experience will be a major advantage.”