November 25, 2008

Messiah ends Maroons’ postseason

After three years of rebuilding, Saturday’s Sweet 16 match against Messiah brought women’s soccer full circle.

Chicago’s Final Four loss to Messiah in 2005 marked the end of an era for this program. Since then, the Maroons’ foundation has been rebuilt, and it was a new group of players that lead the remarkable postseason run that ended in a 4–1 loss to Messiah (21–0–2) Saturday.

The Maroons (13–6–2) knew all about second-ranked Messiah’s speed and versatility going into the Sweet 16 match.

“Everyone talked about Messiah and how good they were, but there was no fear,” head coach Amy Reifert said. “The fourth-years didn’t fear Messiah; they had seen them before.”

Reifert carefully laid out the game plan with history in mind.

“We were going to try to stay compact and organized in the midfield, defend as a block of eight, and try not to let them get free and open,” she said. “We were going to play against them by attacking them—our best defense was offense.”

For the most part, it worked. The team controlled for extended periods and constantly pinned Messiah back in its own territory.

The problem lay in the transition game—throughout the game, missed opportunities came back to haunt Chicago as the Falcons struck back with a lightning-quick transition game.

Messiah’s first goal was a perfect testament to this aspect of the game. After the Maroons won a corner kick in the 15th minute, the Falcons packed the box with all 11 bodies and cleared the ball. Second-year forward Erin Hench broke away on the counterattack, received a pass in the open midfield, and sprinted the rest of the way into the Chicago box. Facing fourth-year keeper Polly Cline, Hench chipped the ball out of reach to give the Falcons a 1–0 lead.

The Maroons continued pressuring, believing that a goal would come if they kept the ball away from Messiah. One nearly did, just before the 40-minute mark. Latching onto a pass just inside the Falcons’ box, second-year forward Sarah Loh took one touch to fool her defender, then curled a hard shot that would have swung into the corner of the net, were it not for fourth-year goalkeeper Brindley Beckwith, who tipped the ball onto the bar and out.

Within minutes of escaping from an equalizer, Messiah scored again, this time through first-year forward Olivia Scott, who snuck behind the Chicago defense before running onto a diagonal cross and beating Cline at the near post for a 2–0 lead.

The second half played out similarly—just as Chicago seemed to find an opening, Messiah would snuff out the danger and catch the Maroons in transition.

Halfway through the second period, a cross by fourth-year Olivia Ndyabagye deflected off a defender, past Beckwith, and toward an empty far post, but no Maroon was on hand to provide the tap-in. The Falcons flew upfield, and within a minute, third-year midfielder Amanda Naeher launched a rocket from the edge of the Chicago box, past a leaping Cline, and into the back of the net to give Messiah a three-goal cushion.

The home side would make it a four-goal lead just over 10 minutes later, again right after the Maroons found themselves on the Falcons’ doorstep. After another Beckwith save, first-year forward Lisa Wingard beat her defender down the right sideline and sent in a cross. The ball fell to first-year midfielder Rachel Loya, who beat Cline from close range in the 77th minute.

Although the fourth goal was a backbreaker, the Maroons kept on the offensive. When, in the 79th minute, second-year midfielder Claire Denz struck a shot that finally beat Beckwith low and to the right, the breakthrough felt less like a consolation goal than a goal that was simply a long time coming.

The Maroons might have been stopped in the round of 16, but their forward progress must be measured through the cycle that goes all the way back to the 2006 season when the team experienced a fair share of growing pains, narrowly missing the postseason. The next season, the team made clear progress, making it to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Comparatively, the success of the 2008 season is undeniable, but it almost didn’t happen. The 1–0 loss against Brandeis on October 17 delivered a huge blow to the team’s hopes of making the postseason. The Maroons found themselves in the position of needing to win out the rest of the season’s matches in order to preserve even a shred of possibility.

“I remember coming out to practice the next day after the Brandeis game,” fourth-year defender Anne Scherer said. “We held our heads up and [showed] the team that we meant business, and we were going to do whatever it would take to win out the rest of our season.”

The late-season run started with 2–1 victory over NYU two days later, and continued on, with the team growing stronger each game. Seven wins later, they found themselves face to face with Messiah in the Sweet 16.

Through it all, Reifert credits her senior class for their exemplary displays of leadership.

“Those kids led by example,” she said. “They did the little things, they did the big things. What they showed was a complete selflessness about the program. It had nothing to do with, ‘We’re seniors, we’re entitled to this.’ It had to do with, ‘We’re seniors, watch us.’”