There's a classic sports cliché that goes something like this: "We can't worry about what might happen two or three games down the road. We just have to take it one game at a time." Granted, we hear this phrase far too often in interviews with players or coaches, but what else can you say about a team on the bubble that just won't go away? For all its overuse, the "one game at a time" phrase is the best way to characterize a women's soccer team that has brought the same killer competitive instinct to every one of its matches.
This past weekend, the Maroons swept a pivotal two-game home stand against UAA rivals Brandeis and Rochester, 3-0 and 1-0, respectively. Both games featured the emergence of yet another goal scoring presence, this time from the defense. First-year fullback Elise Aiken (Arvada, Colorado) had the game-winning goal in both games, helping propel the team to its third straight victory and an overall record of 12-3-1.
The goal against Rochester on Sunday was particularly special as it came early in overtime against a highly talented Yellow Jacket team, which had already amassed 11 convincing wins before falling to the Maroons. After Chicago earned a corner kick, the ball was sent into the box. Rochester goalie Adrian Hulchanski made the initial save on the team's first shot but then gave up a rebound and found herself taken out of the play. In the ensuing chaos in front of the net, Chicago fired one more shot off the cross bar before Aiken finally volleyed home the winner. The goal came at 93:37.
"Rochester is a very classy squad," said assistant coach Bannon Stroud. "The game could have gone either way. Elise has been a good player for us all year and is a consistently high performer."
According to Stroud, Chicago had every reason to win both games. "All of our UAA conference games are the most important games on our schedule. The team knows that it has to play well because we have the most competitive conference by far in the division." Stroud also noted that the games occurred during parents' weekend, during which many of the young team's players were playing a collegiate match in front of their families for the first time. In addition, the home crowd was unusually large over the weekend and featured the vocal support of other Maroon athletes, particularly the members of the women's basketball team.
While the weekend games were underway, the team remained unaware of how UAA rival and current conference leader NYU was faring. Had NYU lost on Sunday, Chicago could have moved into a tie for the division lead and eventually win the division this weekend. While the Maroons played for what they hoped would be an easier road to the playoffs, NYU was unfortunately taking care of its own business, keeping one step ahead of Chicago with a 1-0 win over a struggling Carnegie Mellon team. A Chicago win and an NYU loss this weekend would still give the Maroons a share of its first conference championship since 1999, but because NYU has already beaten the Maroons this season, the New Yorkers would still gain the automatic playoff berth given to each conference winner.
Nonetheless, if Chicago wins its final two games against Washington University of St. Louis and Benedictine University, the NCAA selection committee may very well include the Maroons among a handful of wildcard teams in the upcoming Division III tournament. According to Stroud, as the players have begun to realize just how far they could go, they have played with more and more motivation each game.
The Chicago defense in particular has been instrumental in this latest winning streak. The Maroons have shut out their last three opponents with help from first-year goalkeepers Andrea Przybysz and Jaelyn Edwards, who each held the opposition for 135 minutes. Another stalwart on defense has been fourth-year defender/midfielder Loni Jenkins, who, with the rest of the defensive core, gave up just 13 shots in the last two games. Not only was Jenkins named to the UAA honor role this week, but she also was key factor in the third goal against Brandeis. After collecting a loose ball, Jenkins dribbled the ball all the way into the opponents' corner, turned in towards the net, and then fed deadly striker Renee Neuner with a perfect centering pass. Neuner, whom Stroud describes as "a true finisher," easily beat the Brandeis goalie.
Aiken's first winner against Brandeis was quite similar to her strike against Rochester. Another corner kick eluded the Brandeis goalkeeper and created the same kind of confusion in front of the net. The ball squirted to a waiting Aiken, who wasted no time in taking the open-net shot. Another first-year, Kelsey Hotchkiss, scored the second goal of the game after collecting an easy rebound from a well-struck ball by Monica Michelotti.
As things stand now, the Maroons' prospects are bright. The final two games of any season are always the most difficult, especially at the U of C, but the best teams have historically finished strong. Look for Chicago to continue its high intensity right until the end. The team will travel to Washington University on Saturday for an early morning contest and will return to Stagg Field for a final showdown against Benedictine University on November 9.