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November 8, 2005

Women earn home games with triumph: Wins over Wash U send soccer teams to tourney

The end is just the beginning for women’s soccer.

Games rarely bring stakes as big as the ones Chicago faced in the match-up Saturday, especially with 13 fourth-years finishing their final regular season at Stagg. Not only were the Maroons hosting archrival Washington University, the outcome would determine placement in the postseason.

“We were playing for more than just a win against Wash U,” fourth-year forward Renee Neuner said.

In a tight and physical battle, the 13th-ranked Maroons (14–2–2, 5–1–1) defeated the Bears 2–1 at Stagg Saturday and ultimately earned the privilege to host the first two NCAA playoffs rounds.

Chicago entered the game on a hot streak, having gone 8–0–1 and outscoring the opposition 27–3 in the past nine games. However, their history against Wash U (11–7–1, 3–4–0) hasn’t been nearly as impressive, as the Maroons had dropped the last two by 2–1 scores. The loss two years ago not only handed the Maroons their first and only loss of the regular season but also this senior class’s only career home loss.

Considering their history, the Maroons felt that Saturday’s match was as critical as their upcoming playoff games.

“We were just so fired up for this game,” fourth-year defender Diana Connett said. “You can’t really describe the way our team works together. It’s just so much fun.”

From the start, the teams were engaged in a fierce battle for possession. Defenders on both sides were quick to break off any advances into their final third of the field.

“I didn’t think there’d be too many clean passes or clean shots,” head coach Amy Reifert said. “They play a 3-5-2, and we have at times struggled defending against that. Today we really focused on what we needed to do to stop it.”

“They are a great team, and our rivalry is so strong that no one is going to give an inch,” Connett said.

The deadlock continued for the first half hour until fourth-year Jacqui de Leon was fouled hard in the far left corner and capitalized on the ensuing free kick. The cross was punched out by the Wash U keeper directly to Chicago first-year midfielder Olivia Ndyabagye, who drilled it back right past the keeper’s hands for the 1–0 lead.

With the edge in the game, the Maroons were able to control the ball more, outshooting the Bears 6–3 in the half and 12–10 overall. Chicago was effective in switching between the 4-4-2 and the 4-3-3, with the latter being particularly successful in controlling the game and Wash U’s attackers.

After halftime, Chicago continued to press the Bears’ defense. With the Bears helpless to control her, de Leon drew another foul 30 yards up the left sideline and again took advantage. De Leon’s long free kick slipped past the keeper, who was drawn out to cut off a charging Neuner, and into the far post.

Despite trailing 2–0, the Bears were still determined to claw their way back into the game. Looking for an advantage, they upped their use of rough play, committing 12 of their 19 total fouls in the second half. The Maroons, however, came prepared for the shoves and tackles.

“This is pretty much what I was expecting,” Reifert said. “I was expecting it to be a brawl and that it would be intense and physical.”

“It just made us fight back a little bit harder,” Neuner said. “I was just hoping no one would get seriously hurt.

With the clock winding down, Washington’s core offensive force of third-year midfielders Talia Bucci and Meghan Fowler-Finn, who combined for seven of the Bears’ 10 shots on the day, found a crack in Chicago’s defense and cut the lead to one. Fowler-Finn sent a ball that crept through a muddle of players in the box and was eventually won by Bucci in an aerial 50-50 with Connett.

Caught trying to prevent Washington’s goal, Connett was knocked out of the air and landed on her head. Reifert and the trainer rushed onto the field and after a medical check, Reifert pulled Connett from the game. She watched from the sidelines for a little over two minutes before returning to action.

“It just turned my neck a little,” Connett said. “It’s all right though. If you got to go out, you got to go out hard, I guess.”

With the insurance goal gone, Chicago played a defensive game to protect their one-goal lead as time ticked down.

Despite defeating the rival in a sweet end to the regular season, the Maroons finished the year second in UAA standings behind Rochester (15–1–2, 6–0–1). Rochester sealed the title with their 1–0 victory over Case Saturday.

Chicago launches their postseason effort Saturday at Stagg Field against Aurora (15–6–1). This postseason marks their eighth with Reifert and fourth in the past four years. In that time, they have made two national semifinal appearances and finished as the national runner-up in 2003.