Maroons looking to knock off remaining teams; annual playoff rematch against Wheaton (IL) first of weekend’s test

By Sean Ahmed

Loyal fans of the women’s soccer team have always known, somewhere in the back of their minds, that this game would come.

The 15th-ranked Maroons and fourth-ranked Wheaton (IL) kick off their Sweet 16 matchup at 11 a.m. today, marking the eighth match between the two squads in the last four years. Chicago holds the series lead, having taken four of seven matches, but they haven’t had the same success when it mattered most, going 1–2 in playoff matches. With the squad’s 13 fourth-years faced with their last shot at a title, their final go-around with the Thunder (21–2–0) has taken on greater significance.

“Every game we have left is important to the seniors, because this is their last chance to win it all,” said second-year striker Christine Farmer, who already has an assist this postseason. “All of the underclassmen have stepped it up to keep pace with them, and right now we’re all just playing for the seniors.

“I can say personally that each game I play, I look around and tell myself that I have to play my hardest and never give up, because I want the seniors to end their careers on a win and go out on top.”

If recent history is any suggestion, the winner of this battle could go a long way in the postseason. The winner of the last two playoff matches between Wheaton and Chicago has gone to the national championship game. Always tightly contested, the two have battled in an unofficial Chicagoland championships of sorts.

The Maroons will face off against Wheaton on their home turf and have a potential regional final opponent to thank for that opportunity. As top seed in the bracket, third-ranked Macalester (20–0–1) had the right to host this weekend’s games. Presumably due to poor field condition, they declined, letting the honor pass to second-seeded Chicago. The Maroons have been all but unstoppable at home, going 37–2–4 over the past four seasons and 10–0–1 in 2005.

If that weren’t enough of a plus for the Maroons, another factor comes into play: If Chicago hosts, their opponents don’t get to.

“We certainly enjoy playing here,” head coach Amy Reifert said. “We feel comfortable playing here. It’s just about what we believe we can do on this field and consistency of routine that you just don’t have on the road. And truth be told, it’s hard to beat Wheaton at Wheaton and Macalester at Macalester.”

The winner of Friday’s game will not be able to coast into the Final Four. The victor will face the survivor of a titanic bout between Macalester and sixth-ranked Puget Sound (18–1–1) today at 1 p.m. Those two squads are as tough as they come in the backfield. Between the two of them, they have yielded eight goals in 41 combined games this fall. Puget Sound has been practically impenetrable this season, shutting out 19 straight opponents since a 2–1 loss in their season opener. Still, it won’t be clear what any statistic means until these teams go head-to-head, particularly considering the offensive firepower of Wheaton and Chicago.

There will be no weak link this weekend. These four teams are a veritable who’s who of great Division III women’s soccer programs. Chicago (2003) and Puget Sound (2004) have finished as the last two national runners-up, with the Loggers falling to none other than Wheaton in the championship game last year. Though Macalester hasn’t appeared in the finals since 1999, the Scots also won the whole thing in 1998. With an aggregate record of 75–5–6, this group could easily pose as strong a field as any potential tournament weekend. An NCAA rep called this weekend’s bracket the “Group of Death.”

“It’s good to have that kind of environment here,” assistant coach Bannon Stroud said. “Any team out there would like to be in this position. It’ll be a great atmosphere, and our veterans just don’t want to lose at home.”

The Maroons and Thunder will know what to expect from each other. Their game plans will hinge on trying to create match-up problems on an individual level, rather than forcing across-the-board adjustments.

“Neither team is going to get an edge from knowing each other,” fourth-year center defender Elise Aiken said. “But you just use what you can to your advantage and come out more determined. Play with more heart. We have a lot more seniors, and we want it more.”

“There’s no edge to be gained from things like video, you just have to get mentally prepared to play your hardest,” Farmer said. “We have to capitalize when we get chances.”

Execution will be the name of the game. Chicago will come out trying to control the midfield and push their attack by winning 50-50s. Wheaton plays a physical game but not for lack of talent or speed, as the Thunder can pour on an attack multiple ways. Both teams will be forced to play mistake-free ball. There will simply be too much talent on the field to count on getting away with an error.

The Maroons will no doubt draw on the experience of their 2–1 win over Wheaton back on September 20. Chicago came out aggressive in the first half, building an early two-goal lead and battling to stave off Wheaton’s comeback.

The memory could power Wheaton as well. It was the last time this season they were defeated.

That game showed the defending national champions were beatable, but all previous records will be thrown out the window these next two days. It’s time for these fierce rivals to prove it.

“It’s about stepping up and being prepared to play the game and just compete,” Reifert said. “It’s going to be a brawl. This is what you play for. This is it.”