Down three goals and the starting keeper in the span of seven minutes, women's soccer refused to ease the pressure. Sure, the odds were against the Maroons, but an unusually high number of injuries had already forced them to adjust and fight through obstacles all season. In the end, they may not have been able to come back, but they certainly sent the signal that they'd be back next year.
"I told the team after we came off the field, You hold your head high. You have nothing to be ashamed of,'" head coach Amy Reifert said. "We played so hard: We ran after every ball and competed for every 50-50. We're down 3-0 with ten minutes left, but you'd think it was a 0-0 game."
The 11th-ranked Maroons (15-3-2) charged early against 3rd-ranked Wheaton (22-1-0) creating the game's first big scoring opportunity. First-year forward Christine Farmer's quality shot on net rebounded off the Thunder's diving goalie, but second-year forward Bridget Hogan missed the wide-open net with a shot over the crossbar.
Chicago continued to put the pressure on, but Wheaton picked up its offense late in the half with quick transitions over the top. The Thunder's speed showed on the odd-man rush, as third-year forward Jen Binger's cross was deflected into the net by the defense.
"We were a little unlucky [on the first goal]," Reifert said. "They're very, very dynamic over the top. They just run so hard, and they take advantage of their chances."
Four minutes later, Wheaton first-year Sarah Richardson tallied on a corner kick. She scored again at 38:34 on a rebound off of Chicago third-year goalkeeper Andrea Przybysz to put the Maroons down 3-0 for good.
"In all honesty, we just had about eight bad minutes," third-year midfielder De Leon said. "The first two goals were kind of flukey, and then we made a defensive mistake. Other than that, we played them pretty straight-up."
The last goal stalled the game for close to a half hour, as second-year Laura Koontz's follow-through on her pointblank shot clipped Przybysz and caused her to land awkwardly on her neck. She was taken out of the game on a stretcher, but is fine.
After another injury added to the season's long listno less than five from the two Wheaton gamesfourth-year keeper Ann Zimo stood on her head and commanded the game with her aggressive style.
"Zimo was awesome," Reifert said. "She came in with the confidence and the attitude that really allowed her to take over the game. And she did."
Still, the loss of three defensive playersfirst-year Amanda Catalano and third-years Diana Connett and Ellen Fitzgeraldproved to be too much for the Maroons, forcing lineup shuffles that kept players out of their optimal positions.
"Defense is all about coordination, and it is hard to have that when you keep losing players. It was too much for us to lose so many from the defense this year," said Aiken, who earned first team All-UAA honors for solidifying the backline.
"We could have folded a number of times, but we didn't," Reifert said. "That memory will last forever for me, in terms of what they had to go through and what they accomplished."
Aside from three road losses against nationally ranked opponents, the Maroons played hard and dominated other teams with their technical skill. Third-year Renee Neuner, named first-team All-UAA this season, continued her offensive proficiency, leading the team with 19 goals and 4 assists.
Farmer, who began the season as a backup only expected to occasionally contribute, stepped up with seven goals and six assists. De Leon's (two goals and five assists despite a broken arm) and Farmer's skillful ball-handling created a number of scoring opportunities.
Third-year Randi Leppla was one of the team's biggest surprises, strengthening the midfield with physical play. Her ability to win 50-50s gave Chicago an advantage against more physical opponents, but the team was forced to play her in the back late in the season to accommodate lineup holes.
On the defensive wings, third-year Kay Saul, first-year Amanda Catalano, and, late in the season, a healthy second-year Sally Hall filled in admirably, challenging opponents' offensive charges with improved confidence and toughness. Aiken also improved tremendously in the middle, quarterbacking the defense.
Individually a number of players took this season's challenge head-on, and collectively they proved the program's ability to substitute and adjust on the fly.
"The injuries forced a lot of people to step up and step up big. The one thing you learn from this season is that absolutely the players are a huge part of the system, but they play within the system," Reifert said. "It was great to have different people stepping up on different days to really make us special."
Although the team loses Zimo and fourth-year Emily Walker to graduationwhom Reifert said "will be a huge loss in terms of what she gave to the team that nobody ever saw"their next senior class will be 12 strong. The injuries may have led to this year's struggles, but the bench's experience gained could make this team deeper than it has been any of the last three playoff runs.
Reifert plans on adding only a handful of immediate contributors to next year's team, saying that "recruiting is a year away." She, hoping to strengthen the midfield, is looking to add some team speed.
Most of all, Reifert knows that she doesn't need to radically change a team that has made the playoffs three consecutive seasons, going 49-7-7 over that span. Knowing that with a full roster they're one of the most talented and experienced teams in the nation, women's soccer has no goal left other than going all the way.
"I want nothing less than a national championship," De Leon said. "I don't think that that is at all an unreasonable expectation. And I know that all my teammates agree that this is going to be our goal."