Many of us sports fans that have followed Division I football in recent years note with disgust that teams deserving of a shot at a championship or a bowl appearance are often snubbed because of statistical technicalities. Thankfully, the selection committee for the upcoming Division III women's soccer tournament knows a lot more about picking winners than the BCS. On Sunday evening, that same committee selected a deserving Chicago squad for an at-large bid to play for the national championship.
According to members of the team, as well as head coach Amy Reifert, Sunday's selection was the culmination of a lot of hard work and an unprecedented level of mutual devotion. Fittingly, the entire team was gathered at Reifert's home both to celebrate a tremendous 14-3-1 season and to await the fateful decision together. Just after 11 p.m., a call came through to Reifert with the good news: Friday, 11 a.m., Stagg Field. Be There.
"It was insane," said Reifert of the team's reaction. "We were all very happy." Chicago now awaits the winner of a first round match-up to be decided Wednesday between Oneonta State (19-2-1) and Scranton (15-3-1). Should Chicago win its regional semifinal game on Friday, it would host the regional championship on Saturday at 1 p.m. against either Wheaton College (Illinois) or Webster. On October 2, the Maroons defeated Wheaton 1-0 on the road.
The 17th-ranked Chicago's playoff hopes were cast into doubt after a loss to eventual University Athletic Association champions NYU, which knocked the team out of first place in the conference. Despite a second-place finish, however, Chicago posted a better overall record than any other team in the UAA and boasts a perfect home record of 10-0-0, a figure that would make even Packers fans jealous. In addition, Chicago defeated three teams ranked ahead of it including ninth-ranked Wheaton, 12th-ranked DePauw, and 16th-ranked Rochester. The Maroons even finished the regular season riding a five-game shutout streak. With such impressive credentials staring it in the face, the selection committee saw fit to give Chicago one of four at-large bids in the 45-school tournament.
"They deserve a bid [in the tournament] because they have a real shot at doing some great things," said Reifert. "No matter what happens, though, you can't take anything away from the successful season this team has had." This year's appearance in the playoffs will be the team's fifth since the tournament's creation. Chicago was last involved in postseason play in 1999 when it reached the regional semifinals. The Maroons' best tournament performance came in 1996 when they advanced to the final four.
Unlike previous Chicago athletic events, admission to Friday and Saturday's games will not be free. Tickets are $4 for adults and $2 for students with a U of C or other student ID and will go sale by the field an hour before kickoff.
This past weekend not only marked Chicago's ascent into playoff heaven, but was also the scene of a regular season finale that tied or broke all kinds of records. The first of these records was the score: an 11-0 rout at the expense of the not-so-powerhouse Benedictine University Eagles (4-15-0) that equaled the previous team high. Also notable were the shots on goal. Benedictine couldn't manage a single shot while the Maroons fired off 35.
First-year striker Renee Neuner and fourth-year forward and co-captain Cherish Orozco both notched career performances, collecting three goals and one assist each. Only four other players in the team's recorded history have ever hit the three-goal mark. With the regular season over, Neuner now holds the new single season records for goals with 19, assists with 23, and points with 42.
Orozco's three goals gave her sole possession of second place in career goals with 31. She now trails only Jessica Berry (1996-1999), who tallied 40 goals in four seasons.
Saturday's game ended emotionally as fourth-years Orozco, defender/midfielder and co-captain Julie Ward, midfielder Justine Barone, and midfielder Loni Jenkins all left the field together to a chorus of cheers from the crowd, receiving congratulatory high-fives and hugs from the coaches and other teammates. The afternoon was particularly special for Jenkins who tallied her first goal of the season in the waning minutes of the second half after collecting a perfect pass from Ward.
While the game hardly offered the kind of competition the Maroons have thrived on all season, Orozco was ultimately pleased with of her final regular season game. "It's great to have so many people get a chance to score. We're all very proud of each other and what we've accomplished." Co-captain Ward was also impressed with each player's commitment to the other team members and the way in which the Maroons began to realize their full potential. "Every day's practice became more and more intense," said Ward.
As Friday draws nearer, few questions remain to be answered about this team. It has the talent, it has the depth, it has the coaching, and it has the drive to make any team think twice before taking Chicago lightly. Indeed, many teams are probably afraid to face the Maroons because they know that they have already shut down supposedly better teams and that they are no strangers to big game heroics. The regular season proved that the Maroons are among the best teams in the country, and, with any luck, Friday's post-season opener will only show more of the same. 11 a.m. Friday. Stagg Field.