SPORTS

  /  

November 4, 2005

Brick wall: Back five solidify women’s soccer

Five strong personalities. Five veteran presences. Five distinct play styles. Five paths into the starting rotation.

One banner: “No fucking goals.”

While the women’s soccer team features individual superstars making noise all around the lineup, the defensive unit, composed entirely of fourth-years, has quietly made a name for itself as the backbone of the team. Ultimately, it is that spine that could make the difference between an early goodbye and a deep postseason run.

It was just a year ago that the Maroons were scrambling to fill a decimated back four, having lost center defender Diana Connett to an ankle injury and left back Ellen Fitzgerald to a torn ACL. Not only were midfielders asked to play new roles, but the two remaining starting defenders—Elise Aiken and Kay Saul—had to simultaneously expand their own play and learn the tendencies of their new line-mates.

While the stop-gap defense held its own up to a 3–0 loss at Wheaton (IL) in the NCAA sectional finals, the reunification of the back four with their field general, keeper Andrea Przybysz, has returned lockdown play to Stagg Field. Winning battle after battle, the Maroons’ defense currently sports a 0.52 goals against average, which is one-hundredth of a point better than the 2003 record mark and thanks to major contributions from all five of these players. That mark has come despite, or perhaps as a result of, playing the toughest schedule ever put together for this program.

“We play best against harder teams,” said Fitzgerald, who has started on the outside since her first year. “We bring the mentality that if we give up anything, that could be the game.”

That attitude has been obvious, though it has manifested itself differently in two of the Maroons’ biggest games this year: September 9 against third-ranked Wheaton (MA) and September 20 against seventh-ranked Wheaton (IL). In the first showdown, Chicago controlled the match the entire way and held the Lyons (3.10 goals per game this season) to one goal on seven shots. The defense played up in the midfield most of the game, keeping the ball out of their own zone and playing it forward to the Maroons attackers.

Their aggressiveness was rewarded with Connett’s game-winning goal, which came late in the first half and was quickly donated to her back-line teammates. “That’s one for the defense” may be the line used for any goal scored by the fullbacks. On this team, however, it is also symbolic of the unit’s unified mentality.

“We’ve gone through rough spots in the past, but I’ll say this has been the best year we’ve had in terms of being comfortable with each other and getting along,” said Aiken, who contributed her own goal off a blazing free kick this year.

“Everyone now just wants to play,” Fitzgerald added. “Nobody cares about All-American or anything else. We just want to play.”

It was another player who would step up big in the highly anticipated rematch against Wheaton (IL), last year’s national champions. Down 2–0 after halftime and having mustered only five shots, the Thunder offense finally began clicking and capitalizing on its opportunities, sending a barrage of shots against Przybysz. Though the Chicago keeper conceded a goal five minutes into the second half, she stood on her head the rest of the way, stopping at least five tough shots and single-handedly saving the game for the Maroons.

“There’s times when Andrea doesn’t touch a ball,” head coach Amy Reifert said. “But where she makes a difference is her presence. Other teams don’t have any confidence shooting on her. The real measure of a goalkeeper is that when they need to step up…Wheaton.”

That game went a long way in building Przybysz’s confidence. The record-breaking goalie has been nothing but consistent in her 75 career starts, posting a career goals-against average of 0.59 (at this pace a school record) and a 54–10–9 record. Her concentration unquestionably is one of her biggest assets, as she can go from being entirely unused to player of the match within a single play. Even the accomplished four-year starter has had room to improve in her last year, though.

“Especially in the last few games, Andrea has been a lot more aggressive and vocal,” Fitzgerald said. “She’s been more confident in coming out to get balls—something we all know she’s great at—but hearing just a second earlier makes our jobs easier.”

Przybysz’s individual performance against regional rival Wheaton (IL) also demonstrated one of the defense’s biggest strengths: their ability to both pressure and cover. Because of the experience between the five players and their ability to complement each other’s skills, the defense can play aggressively and always know that they have a teammate who will be there to back them up should something go wrong. Even more importantly, the help isn’t a sign of extreme caution but rather an ability to know what is going to happen after the better part of four years together.

“You learn each other’s body language so well that I know, by the way someone goes up for a ball in the midfield, if she’s going to win the ball,” Aiken said. “There’s less uncertainty for us.”

Fitzgerald has been one of the Maroons’ best in terms of winning air balls, and her in-your-face play on the sidelines mixes both a quickness and aggressiveness that kills drives. Willing to take spills in her pursuit of the ball, Fitzgerald may have been a bit timid in her first games off of knee surgery, but she has been anything but hesitant since.

“I had to gain back some confidence,” Fitzgerald said. “I had to gauge how fast I was, and if I should go for a ball. Now I feel great. I actually feel like I’m playing with more heart because I know what it feels like to have it taken away. Now senior year, it’s all or nothing.”

Her fellow winger Kay Saul stepped up last year after Fitzgerald’s injury, shifting between the right and left-back positions and making the absolute most of her abilities. Though she lacks the speed of the rest of the line, she makes up for it with heady play and impenetrable one-on-one defense.

“Definitely, she’s the nuts-and-bolts hard worker,” said Fitzgerald, crediting Saul for her impeccable down-the-line ball clearances. “One of the best things about her play is how smart she is; she’s one of the smartest on the field in terms of decision making, seeing the field.”

“Kay is the most underappreciated member of the defense,” Aiken said. “Part of being that smart of a player is that she has to do less work, and it makes her less flashy. She has such great footwork one-on-one defensively that she won’t have to make the last-ditch effort.”

Those showier plays often come from the imposing duo of Aiken and Connett, who measure in at 5-foot-10 and 5-foot-11, respectively. Both command the center, though in very different ways.

Aiken, who stepped up her leadership role to fill in for her ailing partner, uses her height and reach while sticking her ground. Aggressive with her on-the-ball tackles, she has also contributed substantially on the offensive end, scoring 19 points in her career including a season-high 10 in 2004.

Connett, on the other hand, is the most overtly aggressive of the bunch, often bulldozing attackers for balls in the air. Perhaps Chicago’s most reliable defender, she’s tough, speedy, and always where the ball is.

The combination of focus, athleticism, smarts, and aggressiveness on the back line offers a diverse defensive package. Even more basic than those skills, however, is that each is just a good defender.

“I’ll take any of them in a one-on-one battle,” Reifert said. “That’s what you have to have as a defender. They’re so tight that they’ll cover each other’s back at all costs so that, if one’s not going to win that battle, they’re not going to be left out to dry.”

All those qualities will be in peak demand the rest of the way, as the Maroons speed toward their fourth straight postseason. Saturday’s home match against top rival Wash U (11–6–1, 3–3–0) is, for all intents and purposes, the beginning of their do-or-die schedule, as the Maroons seek revenge for the past couple years. The Bears emerged victorious in the last two meetings, both of which decided the UAA title and the first of which ruined Chicago’s undefeated season.

“We’ve been better than them, but they’ve been able to beat us the last two years,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re a physical team too, so that puts us on edge. It’s a grudge match.”

Whether up against elbows, speed, or size, these five defenders are primed for the last tournament of their careers. The Maroons may well go just as far as this quintet can carry them.

First person account from keeper Andrea Przybysz…

I’m apprehensive to say that as a senior class we’re playing the best soccer of our collegiate careers for fear that our luck will run out, but our team, particularly our defensive line, is so systematic that I’m willing to take that chance.

Last year was a challenge with two defensemen on the injured list, and although I never doubted their commitment to the team, I had to wonder whether they’d be as strong. My worries quickly faded by our third regular season game versus Wheaton (IL). It was evident that both Diana and Ellen were playing with a renewed sense of confidence.

Fortunately, Elise and Kay who really took leadership roles at the time, have remained the cornerstone of our defensive line. Elise cleans up everything between the midfield line and the defense and Kay, likely the most intelligent player I’ve ever played with, conducts everyone in front of her with great precision. I’m lucky to have the personnel in front of me to deflect a great amount of ordering and decision making from my duties.

Reading the Maroon last week about where “sports fit on our campus” I started to tear. Until that time, I wanted to say that what he have accomplished was good enough, that merely establishing the Chicago women’s soccer program as a consistent top contender for the national title made us memorable. But, I realized that it’s not quite good enough. Our fans our great, and we have seen our fan base quadruple in our careers here, but still too few people know what an amazing team we are and what an amazing game we play. I believe that our team has a mission and that mission is to win out, for ourselves, and for the school. We will be the unit to bring about this cohesion and to give a renewed sense of identity to the school community. That’s how special this group is.