“Group of Death” next test for women’s soccer

By Sean Ahmed

After breezing through the first two rounds of NCAAs, women’s soccer is riding high. But with three top-10 teams coming to Stagg for the next two rounds, nobody is looking to rest on their laurels quite yet.

“Our seniors are about as keyed in right now as ever,” head coach Amy Reifert said. “Everybody else is stepping up behind them. The NCAA rep was calling the ‘group of death.’ You need everyone on their top game this weekend, so it’s a game that’s won on a moment, not a mistake.”

The 15th-ranked Maroons (16–2–2) came out confidently last Saturday, scoring all four of their goals in the first half and allowing Aurora (15–7–1) only a single shot the entire way. They followed that up with a similarly overwhelming performance the next day, adjusting their play to best suit the 30-mph winds to pick up a 3–0 win and advance to the upcoming sectional bracket.

Fourth-year midfielder Jacqui de Leon opened the first-round scoring against the Spartans, tallying her third goal of the year just 4:16 in. First-year striker Christine Farmer found de Leon on the sideline, where she beat three defenders and a helpless goalie.

De Leon’s bullet set the tone early, as Chicago ended up making three of five first-half shots. The program’s all-time assists leader as of last Saturday, de Leon also played a part in the next goal with a solid corner kick. After the ball bounced untouched in the box, fourth-year midfielder Randi Leppla redirected it from the front of the net to make it 2–0.

Leppla almost created another tally just a few minutes later, executing a beautiful slide tackle at the top-right corner of the box and crossing to Farmer on the left side of the net. The second-year’s shot bounced off Spartans keeper Angela Garza, who finally was able to fall on the ball at the goal line and keep the two-goal margin.

Chicago wouldn’t be stopped for long. For the third time on the day, a Chicago fourth-year tallied, as center defender Diana Connett blasted in a cross from first-year midfielder Siggy Nachergaele to make it 3–0 just 26 minutes in.

An Aurora own goal four minutes later capped the game’s scoring before a slow final hour of play.

“We’re trying to take it piece-by-piece, and this is exactly where we hope to be,” head coach Amy Reifert said. “Scoring four goals that early couldn’t be more perfect. Nobody played more than 60 minutes, and I thought we were for sure the more rested of the two teams yesterday. There just wasn’t that much stress the next game for us.”

Sunday’s second-round match against Loras ended up as another blowout, though weather conditions produced a much more frenzied feel to the game. With the wind swirling around the field, the ball at times was taking right-angle turns, and goalie kicks and set pieces knuckled erratically or died well short of their intended target. Before the game, the Maroons set out their game plan to deal with the Windy City.

“Before the game, I said to the kids, ‘Tell me three things you just learned from warm up,’” Reifert said. “They said, ‘Keep it on the ground. Don’t put it in the air. Be patient and play it safe when the ball goes up.’”

“It put a lot more pressure on our defenders since they couldn’t move up the field because they had more defensive responsibilities,” fourth-year keeper Andrea Przybysz said. “They did a great job getting through balls, and that definitely gave the other team major problems getting their forwards involved in the game. We just ran through every ball we could on defense.”

The wind played a part in the game’s 16th-minute goal, as the ball’s unpredictable movement pulled the goalie out of the net and caused a Duhawks defender to shank her clearance to fourth-year offensive midfielder Monica Michelotti. The newly healthy Michelotti finished for her third goal of the year.

Up 1–0, the Maroons dominated most of the half, creating a number of scoring chances and generally controlling possession. With less than 10 minutes left before the break, Chicago had its best scoring chance, as Nachtergaele beat her defender on the right sideline, took the ball to the right edge of the box, and sent a cross to Connett. Loras keeper Torey Murray stretched every fiber in her body to tip the high shot over the crossbar.

The Duhawks came out strong after the break, taking advantage of Chicago’s brief midfield collapse. The Maroons struggled with their game plan, missing 50-50s and keeping the ball in the air on clearances. The Maroons defense held steady, however, and kept their team leading by one.

Fourth-year striker Renee Neuner finally put the game away for the Maroons, scoring two goals—her 16th and 17th tallies of the season—in exactly a minute. De Leon and Nachtergaele picked up their second assists of the weekend on the first score. De Leon took the ball down the sideline and then the end line before slotting the ball to Nachtergaele, whose touch went to a ready Neuner and directly inside the right post to make it 2–0.

With less than 25 minutes remaining, Neuner caught the demoralized Loras defense napping with a floating, in-swinging ball from the top-left corner of the box that squeaked into the far corner of the net. De Leon picked up her ninth assist of the year and 28th career helper on the play, having passed a short corner to Neuner.

“We said we weren’t going to take a corner into the wind, and of course we end up scoring a short corner because they weren’t even paying attention,” Reifert said. “Renee on Sunday was tuned in and fabulous. Jacqui was just terrific both days, creating chances and getting great shots on goal.”

The win launched the Maroons into the Sweet 16 in what promises to be the most competitive and heated four-team bracket left. Wheaton (IL), Macalester, and Puget Sound will play Friday and Saturday at Stagg Field, which became the site after top-seeded Macalester declined hosting. The four teams have a combined record of 75–5–4 and have outscored opponents 232 to 32.

Friday’s 11 a.m. matchup against fourth-ranked Wheaton (IL) promises to be another classic in the heated rivalry. The Thunder (21–2–0) lost 2–1 at Stagg Field in September, but the defending national champions have since rattled off 17 consecutive wins. The Maroons are 1–2 the last three years in the annual playoff battle against Wheaton.

Pick up Friday’s Maroon for a full weekend preview.