Trying to earn, borrow, beg, or steal a result against the best team in the country in under a minute—most would consider that a lost cause.
With 40 seconds left in regulation, the Maroons trailed the top-ranked Wheaton Thunder by a goal. An equalizer seemed out of reach, but as fourth-year defender Amanda Catalano lined the ball up for a corner kick, they were in the best position to fight for one. Catalano’s in-swinger bounced around inside the box before being bundled out of bounds by a Wheaton player.
Down to 20 seconds and counting, first-year defender Claire Denz raced over to the opposite corner flag and lifted the ball into play just as the announcer started to count down the last 10 seconds of the game.
The ball seemed to hang in the air for several tense seconds before descending upon the crowd of players inside the box. With five seconds left on the clock, first-year midfielder Kate Manuelli rose to meet the ball head-on, sending it past the outstretched hands of the Wheaton goalkeeper and into the back of the net.
“We all knew that the corner kick was our last chance to score,” Manuelli said. “All the girls on the field were focused and ready to do whatever it took…. Even if I did not head it in, Claire Gill, Anne [Scherer], and Olivia [Ndyabagye] were right behind me, ready to score.”
The last-gasp equalizer completed a two-goal comeback for the Maroons, sending the game into overtime in front of an ecstatic crowd. In the first OT period, both teams carved out scoring chances, but remained deadlocked.
At the beginning of the second OT period, Chicago won a free kick outside the Wheaton area. Denz’s delivery cleared the first line of defense, finding second-year midfielder Claire Gill. Coming within inches of sealing the game, Gill poked the ball toward the far post, only to see it cleared agonizingly off the line by the keeper.
A minute later, Wheaton came marching down the field. Second-year forward Taryne Lee bypassed a Chicago mix-up in the midfield and took the ball all the way down the right sideline before sending in a cross. Although several Maroons had tracked back, nobody picked up first-year forward Brittany Bergh, who rushed into empty space and, with one neat stroke, collected the victory for the Thunder.
“To beat the number-one team in the country, you have to be perfect,” said head coach Amy Reifert. “We made three errors in succession to allow them to come down and score.”
The aftertaste was bitter, the disappointment palpable. But the effort put forth by Chicago in pushing Wheaton to the edge was nothing short of extraordinary.
In front of a raucous home crowd, the Maroons (8–4–3, 1–1–2 UAA) subdued early pressure from the Thunder (17–0–0).
“They’re so strong offensively because they can take it wide and score off a cross, but they can also play to their forwards’ feet equally as well,” Catalano said.
Catalano started in central defense with Denz, as part of the shift that moved third-year Anne Scherer up top, alongside second-year Brooke Bontz. Reifert’s other changes included playing second-year Katie Klamann in defense while Manuelli started in the midfield. The adjustments have yielded largely positive results in the past week, compensating for the loss of key players like fourth-year forward Christine Farmer.
“Everyone has really stepped up over these past couple of weeks to fill the shoes of the injured,” Scherer said. “It’s been a complete team effort by all.”
The Maroons collectively foiled the visitors for 23 minutes, but the breakthrough came in typical Wheaton fashion: Fourth-year forward Sarah Richardson streaked down the right wing and sent in a weighted cross for fourth-year midfielder Libby Passiales, who headed it comfortably into the net
The Maroons returned the pressure with a barrage of their own, largely orchestrated through their substitutes. Second-year forward Melissa Plesac got the best touch of the first half after Bontz took the ball around her defender and squared it into the box. Plesac had a narrow angle to shoot from, but forced fourth-year goalkeeper Kristin Eggert to make a fine save.
Chicago took the one-goal deficit into halftime. “During the first half we played very frantically, and the biggest thing that was stressed at halftime was possession,” Catalano said. “Once we started to possess the ball and string some passes together, we gained confidence and the momentum of the game definitely changed.”
Despite Chicago’s renewed appetite, they fell further behind in the 54th minute. A corner kick taken by Passiales found Bergh, who beat Sutter from inside the six-yard box.
“Being down two goals caused a great reaction,” Scherer said. “We realized there was no reason to play nervous. It was...now or never that we needed to convert on offense and play together.”
After creating but not capitalizing on a number of dangerous scoring chances, the Maroons finally pulled one back in the 70th minute. Third-year midfielder Olivia Ndyabagye capped off a blistering run down the right channel by finding Plesac unattended inside the box. Plesac met the pass, landing her shot inside the far post, taking her tally to two on the week.
The offense kept the Thunder pinned for much of the remaining minutes before the flurry of action leading up to Manuelli’s equalizer and to the play that finally undid the Maroons’ hopes of springing the biggest upset in D-III soccer.
The finale of the match, though heartbreaking, also illustrated just how close the Maroons are to finding the edge they’ve been searching for this season. They pushed Wheaton to the brink of their first tie, and they did it by using a bench that hasn’t commanded a lot of attention yet. Then again, depth is one of this squad’s greatest assets.
“We all stayed positive and decided to play hard and win for those who couldn’t be on the field,” Manuelli said.
The recent offensive explosion has revived hopes of the postseason, and the team can take heart after Saturday’s display against the best of the best.
“I feel like we’ve played better and better and better every game, and we’re finally putting the pieces together,” Reifert said.