For women’s soccer, the reception in Wheaton was as chilly as the weather Tuesday night. The eighth-ranked Maroons recorded their first loss of the season at eighteenth-ranked Wheaton Tuesday night after a last-minute injury to third-year midfielder Meryl Prochaska forced head coach Amy Reifert to make drastic changes to the Chicago backline.
In the latest chapter of a bitter rivalry between two nationally-ranked squads, the Maroons fell 4–1 to bring an end to their seven game unbeaten run. It was the teams’ first meeting since Chicago eliminated the Thunder 2–1 in the third-round of last season’s NCAA tournament. After scoring first, the visitors quickly fell behind and were unable to recover.
The loss of Prochaska was the second in less than a week for the Maroons. In the second half of Saturday’s victory over DePauw, first-year Kaitlin Meyer was carried off the pitch after breaking her leg during a tough challenge. The loss of Meyer, who had added valuable aggression and intelligence to the backline, meant that Reifert had to find a new combination in the back to try and contain the potent Wheaton offense.
Going into Tuesday’s contest, it was expected that third-year Amanda Catalano would cover for Meyer in central midfield, while Prochaska slotted into the left fullback position. The Maroons received their second blow in less than a week however, when just minutes before the Maroons were slated to kick off against the Thunder, Prochaska collapsed with an expected torn ACL during the pregame warm up.
What started out as a decent backup line of defense ended up as an experiment in adaptability:
"What we did was slide Sally [Hall] inside—it's the first time she's played inside for a solid year, but with Kaitlin gone I felt like pushing her inside is the best way to go," said Reifert, who shifted second-year Maggie Costich into Hall’s usual fullback role.
Despite entering the match on the back of a five-game winning streak, the Maroons took nothing for granted going into what was sure to be one of the toughest tests of the season. Second-year winger Olivia Ndyabagye got the Maroons off to a flying start in just the second minute of the first half, receiving a pass from junior Christine Farmer, taking full advantage of the acres of space in front of her, and finally unleashing an unstoppable shot past Wheaton third-year goalkeeper Kristin Eggert from 30 yards out.
Although things looked to be going well after Ndyabagye’s strike, the optimism was short-lived. The Maroons were only able to hold onto their lead for seven minutes before Wheaton struck back. The Thunder snagged a quick equalizer after a free kick from the left wing was met by third-year defender Kira Davis, who was left unmarked inside the Chicago box. Second-year goalkeeper Polly Cline could only watch as the ball flew into the top corner of the net. From that point on, the Maroons were frozen into their own half as Wheaton surged forward through speedy fourth-year winger Laura Koontz and third-year forward Sarah Richardson.
Koontz, in particular, gave the subbing Costich a nightmarish first half at her new position, as she produced the cross that led to Wheaton's second goal of the game. After Cline tipped Koontz’s shot onto the bar and then smothered the ball in front of an onrushing Wheaton forward, the Thunder pressed on, finding paydirt on their next combination: Koontz delivered a perfect cross, and Passiales only had to make the connection to give Wheaton the lead right before halftime.
Considering all of the chances Wheaton spurned in the first half, the Maroons should have felt relieved that the scoreline was as low as it was. Chicago’s improvised defense would only suffer more of the Wheaton attack as the game progressed, simply lacking the muscle to compete with third-year Bethany Barton and 5-foot-10 first-year Maria Della Torre in central midfield.
Nonetheless, the Chicago side that took the pitch in the second half was a resurgent one. While the Maroons didn't create too many clear-cut chances, they battled their way back into the game, with second-year Siggy Nachtergaele and fourth-year Bridget Hogan continually pressuring the Barton-Della Torre duo in the middle of the field and preventing Wheaton from controlling the game.
After 72 minutes, Cline was replaced by Amanda Sutter, who was immediately tested. Wheaton fourth-year striker Karen Jezequel turned away from Hall and sent in a low shot that Sutter stopped easily, setting up the Maroons’ best chance of the half. Chicago counterattacked quickly, with first-year midfielder Katie Klamann sending a left-footed shot straight at Eggert, followed by a searing cross by Nachtergaele that was claimed by the goalkeeper before Farmer could reach it. The Maroons had the run of play by then, and created their best chance of the second half; Ndyabagye received the ball out wide, and her cross was cleared out to first-year forward Melissa Plesac, whose shot rattled the Wheaton crossbar.
While the Maroons held their own in the second half, soccer is a game that focuses on results as well as effort, and in the end it was Wheaton who finished their chances. After second-year defender Callie Brown gave away the ball in Chicago territory, Della Torre slid the ball forward to Jezequel, who breezed past Hall and Scherer and beat Sutter with her shot. Thunder first-year forward Taryne Lee finished off the game less than 30 seconds from time, capitalizing on a cross by second-year midfielder Kari Klynstra.
"In the first half we needed to combine one additional pass in the midfield to give our forwards a better chance, and therefore we didn't get many chances in the first half,” Reifert said. “I felt like we did that in the second half and were much more dangerous and much more effective, which was exciting."
Despite the scoreline, the Maroons remain optimistic about the team dynamics going into Saturday’s match against Carnegie Mellon (4–3–1), the UAA opener for both teams. The Maroons will face a stiff test of their resolve against the Tartans, who treated the South Siders to a 2–0 defeat last season in Pittsburgh.
"I need the players to step up and play even bigger roles than they have thus far this year,” Reifert said. “So hopefully we get them to step up and be consistent performers over more minutes. It's going to be a brawl."