They came and they saw, but the conquering is still a work in progress.
World domination may be an impractical ideal, but conference domination is an attainable goal for women's soccer (5–2–1, 0-0 UAA), who have unquestionably benefited from their preseason trip to Italy. The highlight is a rejuvenated, versatile offense that has out-tallied opponents 19–7 through eight games, with nine different goalscorers.
It's a satisfying way to rebound from the end of last season, when a 1–0 defeat away at Wash U on the last game day cost the Maroons a postseason berth.
"I told my team after the season ended that I believed in them," Reifert said. "We didn't play with the edge that we needed to play with, so I wanted to use the offseason to leave no stone unturned."
This year, all the rebuilding and hard work got done in Italy. The experience proved successful—and not just on the pitch.
"Going on a trip like that and sharing those once-in-a-lifetime experiences really draws everyone together, which helps us play better as a team," said fourth-year forward Christine Farmer.
"Jumping into the Mediterranean together, or walking through the Sistine Chapel—you can't come close to those kinds of things in a normal preseason," Reifert added.
Though certainly more relaxing than rigorous, the trip wasn't all fun and games. Focusing their efforts into one practice each day, the Maroons returned to Chicago with plenty of energy and motivation, as evidenced by five consecutive victories to start the season: 6–0 against Heidelberg (2–7), 1–0 in overtime at DePauw (2–7), 4–0 against Calvin (4–3–1), 2–1 against St. Olaf (2–7–1), and 2–0 at Illinois Wesleyan (4–4–1).
After containing sixth-ranked Wisconsin-Eau Claire (7–0–1) to a 1–1 tie on the road, the Maroons' momentum was somewhat stalled by two consecutive defeats. A 3–2 loss at Carthage (8–1–0) was followed by a hard-fought 2–1 decision at home to Wisconsin-Stevens Point (6–2–1) on Tuesday, which snapped the Maroons' 20-game unbeaten streak at home.
The Pointers went two goals ahead in the first half through third-year forwards Kaylee Weise and Amanda Prawat, only for the Maroons to come out of the break to pin the visitors back in their territory. Second-year forward Brooke Bontz scored her third career goal in the 79th minute, claiming the rebound after second-year winger Katie Klamann hit the post.
Although the Maroons could not find an equalizer before the final whistle, the improved second-half performance was heartening for fans and coach alike.
"We've talked a lot about how each possession matters, and that's how we played in the second half. If we learn from these results, we'll be better in the conference," Reifert said.
The Maroons are facing a few injury problems heading into tomorrow's first league match—the most significant loss is first-year forward Sarah Loh, who had five goals and two assists in the first five games. The physical challenges of the UAA may prove a tough hurdle for the incoming class, but the returning players know what to expect.
"We just have to make sure that we start all of our games strong, and stay focused and determined for the full 90 minutes," Farmer said.
The undefeated Emory Eagles (8–0–0, 0–0) will prove a sterner test than most. Ranked fourth by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA), the Eagles will undoubtedly force the question on both sides of the ball.
For Reifert, though, the goals are clear, and definitely within reach: "This is how we get into the NCAA tournament—by winning in the conference."