After another undefeated weekend, athletic department officials should soon be gathering up the record books and preparing a special spot in the Ratner Hall of Fame for what might very well be the best women's soccer team in University history.
The Maroons, now ranked first in the nation among Division III teams, tied Case Western Reserve 1-1 on Friday afternoon and then put up their twelfth shutout of the year in a 3-0 drubbing of the University of Rochester on Sunday. With the weekend's results, Chicago extended its regular season unbeaten streak to 22 games and its home unbeaten streak to 19.
More importantly, the 14-0-3 Maroons are just a win or a tie away from clinching their fourth University Athletic Association championship since joining the conference in 1987 and are also on the verge of their first-ever undefeated season. Fittingly, the only team that stands in their way is second-place Washington University in St. Louis. The Bears, with 13 points in the UAA standings, are just one point behind archrival Chicago and could capture the conference crown themselves when the two teams square off in the regular season finale this Saturday in Hyde Park. While a Washington victory would prevent Chicago from winning the UAA, the Maroons would still be likely to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA championship tournament.
With then top-ranked Trinity College losing its first game on Friday, many fans and parents were congratulating head coach Amy Reifert on her team's ascent to the top of the field as time ran out in the Rochester game. But Reifert, in a possible effort to avoid the traditional hubris that routinely derails top contenders, was a bit more modest.
"With three draws, I think we might even drop down to number four or five," she said.
Second-half heroics were the story in both weekend matches. Second-year forward Kelsey Hotchkiss scored the game-tying goal against Case Western with just over two minutes remaining, turning what looked to be Chicago's first loss of the season into a jubilant celebration on the sidelines. The Maroons out-shot the Spartans 28-6, but were unable to capitalize on any of their chances until Hotchkiss finally broke through.
Sunday's contest, which featured a pre-game ceremony celebrating the careers of the team's four fourth-years, was only slightly less dramatic. Thirteen minutes into the second half, one of the honored players, fourth-year forward Courtney Hardie, took a perfect lead pass up the middle from second-year midfielder Monica Michelotti and floated a shot over the charging keeper's head. The goal came after a critical eight-minutes in which Chicago survived a series of defensive breakdowns where the Yellow Jackets were unable to get off the potential tie-breaking shot.
The game also marked the triumphant return of Chicago's leading scorer, second-year striker Renee Neuner, who sat out the last four games due to a leg injury.
"It was the longest week-and-a-half of my life, but it feels great to come back and beat [Rochester]," Neuner said after the game.
While her playing time was closely monitored by the trainer, Neuner still managed to have a large impact on the field. Five minutes after Hardie's goal, Neuner held off two defenders in the box before somehow getting off a shot that clanged loudly off the crossbar. Then, with just under 23 minutes to play, she followed a perfect leading pass from second-year midfielder Elise Aiken that split the back two Rochester defenders. Neuner then beat the goalie in the race to the ball, dribbled it by her, and calmly buried the empty-net shot.
According to Neuner, a common misconception about the Maroons is that they rely primarily on a kick-and-run style that depends entirely on chasing deep passes and hoping for defensive breakdowns. But while Chicago often does benefit from its advantage in speed, the team's actual strategy is a bit more complicated and somewhat similar to the kind of pre-drawn passing routes seen in football playbooks.
"Sometimes [my teammates] know where I'm going to run before I do," Neuner joked.
A key figure in Chicago's successful game plan has been second-year midfielder Jacqui DeLeon, who engineered many of Chicago's chances on offense and eventually set up Chicago's third goal in the 80th minute. During a rush up the left side of the field, DeLeon was able to settle the ball down in the box after beating her defenders and find first-year forward Misa Bretschneider, who immediately crossed the ball to first-year Sally Hall. With the goalie out of position, Hall one-touched a rising shot into the open net.
In Reifert's view DeLeon stands out because of the way she combines her talent and athleticism with her deep technical knowledge of the game.
"She creates opportunity after opportunity after opportunity," Refiert said. "She works so hard and is a great technical player."
After the upcoming game against Washington, NCCA officials will announce late Sunday night the seedings and schedule for the championship tournament. The team will gather together, as it has in previous seasons, and wait by the phone for the postseason call.