When women’s soccer fell in an overtime heartbreaker in last year’s Final Four, they lost more than a shot at the national title. They lost a vaunted class of 13 seniors who had led the team on and off the field to the most successful four-year run in program history. But eight games into the 2006 season, it seems clear that one thing they didn’t lose is a step.
Despite having replaced their offensive sparkplugs and their entire defensive unit, the eighth-ranked Maroons (6–1–1) have rolled through their early competition and will enter UAA competition tomorrow once again gunning for a league title and a deep tournament run. Though their 17-game regular season unbeaten streak ended with a 4–1 loss to 18th-ranked Wheaton (IL) (7–2) Tuesday, the women seem to have found a way to combine a new identity with the same old results.
“That’s been the greatest part of this season, how well this team has gelled,” head coach Amy Reifert said. “People feel ownership that this is our team, and that we’re extremely talented. We’re getting it from all of our players, everyone has stepped up.”
Chicago’s total team effort has been amply illustrated on the scoreboard throughout September. They’ve already posted three victories by three goals or more and earned a gutsy 1–0 win against 22nd-ranked DePauw (5–2), when a Tiger defender deflected a kick into her own net September 23rd. Seven different players have recorded goals so far this season, and eight have notched at least one assist.
A remodeled backfield might have provided some hope for the rest of the conference, yet the defense hasn’t missed a beat. After being limited to just 11 games by injury last year, fourth-year fullback Sally Hall has come through admirably to lead the unit, and second-year goalkeeper Polly Cline has held opponents to a 0.61 goals against average. Overall, the group has managed to coalesce despite being repeatedly bitten by the injury bug, which has already counted first-year sensation Kaitlin Meyer (broken shin) and third-year Meryl Prochaska (torn ACL) among its victims. Second-year Maggie Costich is likely to join Hall, third-year free kick artist Amanda Catalano (three assists), and second-year Anne Scherer in attempting to shut down Carnegie Mellon (4–3–1) Saturday.
“We’ve come together incredibly well,” Reifert said. “Sally’s been the backbone, but Kaitlin was doing an awesome job in the middle, Anne Scherer is the mark of consistency, Meryl has done a great job, Maggie has done a great job… we’ve just really gelled.”
“It's been hard to come together as a definite unit because we've had so many injuries in the back and people have been shuffled around a lot, but even so, we're all starting to
learn how our other defenders play and how to play with them,” Catalano said. “We've had a few lapses, but overall, I think we'll come together and form a solid back line.”
That line should be guarding some big-time leads with the talent that Chicago has upfront. With third-year forward Christine Farmer enjoying a monster year (see box), the Maroons have averaged 2.25 goals and 17.8 shots per game. Farmer has the support of some experienced players bringing the ball forward with midfield standouts like fourth-year Bridget Hogan and second-years Siggy Nachtergaele and Olivia Ndyabagye having seen significant minutes last year, and fourth-year Maya Pratt coming all the way back from a gruesome ACL tear last October. Together they may well prove even better than the unit that nearly made the national championship game last year, which put up 2.15 goals and 15.7 shots average over the course of the year.
“I think our offense was the part of the team that was least impacted by the departure of the seniors. We’ve had more minutes of playing time experience, and have played
with each other before. That made it easier for us to transition,” Farmer said. “When we are all playing well, everyone is making well-timed runs, the outside mids are taking it endline slot, the midfielders are seaming balls through to the forwards, and we're making, as Coach would say, ‘cold, calculated finishes.’”
As good a job as the squad has done filling the gaps left on the pitch, the women have earned even more praise for the character and poise they’ve demonstrated thus far. The tri-captain trio of Hall, Hogan, and Pratt has helped infuse the team with the same hardnosed attitude that has served them so well in years past, with help from players like Catalano and their fellow fourth-years forward Jordan Pouliot and midfielder Marianna Kerppola.
“The captains have been amazing. It must have been hard to take over from last year's
seniors, but they've emerged as true leaders on and off the field,” Catalano said.
It hasn’t been all good news for Chicago this fall. Though they had some chances late against Wheaton, the game got out of hand toward the end and the loss of Meyer, Prochaska, and last year’s backup keeper Amanda Sutter to injury has drastically reduced Chicago’s vaunted depth. Still, this relatively green team is continuing to improve every day and should be able to do some damage in the UAA. The women will defend their champion status in the league against third-ranked Rochester (6–0–1) and Wash U (7–2). However, as always—and this year more than ever—the rest of the conference won’t simply roll over.
“Carnegie has a lot of talent, and they made a great run last year. The UAA top to bottom is better than it ever has been. I think it’s going to be a dogfight,” Reifert said. “Typically, most years the winner of the UAA just has one loss. It’ll be interesting to see if that holds true this year. It wouldn’t surprise me if the winner has two losses.”
Last year’s Gang of 13 recorded an 18–3–2 record and wound up as the third-best team in the country. With a new personality and the same level of talent, the 2006 Maroons are zeroing in on a similar target.
“Every year we have the goals of winning a UAA title and a national championship, and this year is no exception,” Farmer said. “If you're not playing to win it all, then to me there's no point in playing at all.”
Spotlight on Christine Farmer
Farmer has recorded numbers through eight games that would be respectable season totals: Her 10 goals and three assists give her as many points as all but one member of last fall’s squad had through the entire year. Getting more touches around the net with the graduation of national player of the year Renee Neuner (A.B. ’06) and exhibiting greater skill at finishing, the third-year is set to overwhelm league opponents with a magnificent all-around game. Coach Reifert: “She’s a very good run at you striker, but she’ll score on a back-post run, she’ll score on a 1-2 cross. You can shut her down for 83 minutes, and she’ll take seven and win it. She’s been fabulous for us every single game this season.”