SPORTS

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November 10, 2009

After besting seventh-ranked Bears, Chicago to host NCAA Regional

Fumbles are game changing plays in football, but they aren’t often associated with soccer. On Saturday, however, a crucial fumble swung the momentum in favor of women’s soccer and propelled them to a vital 3–0 win over Wash U.

In the 25th minute, third-year forward Sarah Loh fired a speculative shot from 20 yards out in the left channel. Bears goalkeeper Clara Jaques was well-positioned to make an easy save, but the ball slipped through her fingers, between her legs, and into the Wash U goal.

Suddenly, Chicago (14–3–1, 4–2–1 UAA) had a 1–0 lead, which was, in the end, all the Maroons needed to top the seventh-ranked Bears (14–3–1, 5–1–1), who hadn’t lost in 15 contests since their September 5 loss at Johns Hopkins.

The victory was doubly satisfying for Chicago: Not only was it a convincing win over a ranked rival, but it virtually assured them of a spot in the NCAA bracket, which was released yesterday morning. The Maroons will host Aurora (16–5) in the tournament’s first round this Friday, and if they win there, will advance to play either Carleton (10–5–5) or Wheaton (15–4–1) at home on Saturday.

During the Wash U game, Loh’s early goal increased Chicago’s confidence, but it also increased the Bears’ determination as they sought to regain equal footing with the Maroons.

“We didn’t have to worry about getting a goal, so we weren’t trying to force it. At the same time, though, being down a goal made Wash U come at us even harder. They had nothing to lose really by sending everyone up,” second-year goalkeeper Emma Gormley said.

As the first half wore on, the Bears began to pepper Gormley’s goal, but she was equal to the task. In the 33rd minute, she saved a header off of a long throw-in by midfielder Rachel Haas. Another header, this time from Emily Bylsma, forced a diving save in the 43rd minute, but didn’t get the Bears on the board.

Wash U continued to pour forward in the second half, but in the 54th minute, it was the Maroons who found net and grabbed an insurance goal for themselves.

The scoring chance began with Loh, who dribbled past two defenders on the right wing and sent a ball into the box. Her cross was cleared, but only as far as Benoit, who unleashed a strike from 15 yards into the top left corner of the goal. Jaques managed to get a touch on the ball but could not handle the velocity of the shot.

“I was just holding as the center midfielder at the top of the box to keep everything in the mix, and the ball got knocked out and I just ran through it,” Benoit said.

Now trailing 2–0, the Bears were further emboldened to push players into the attack, knowing that only a win could guarantee them the UAA championship.

“They were already down by a couple of goals, and it didn’t matter if they lost by one or five,” Gormley said. “Their aggressive play did, however, leave them vulnerable to counterattacks, and our forwards were able to capitalize on the opportunities they had.”

It looked as if the aggression might pay off in the 68th minute, when second-year forward Allison Hegel appeared to commit handball in the box on a Wash U corner kick. Whether Hegel handled the ball or not, the referee ignored the Bears’ appeals and did not award a penalty.

Not long after that escape, Chicago pierced the Wash U defense with yet another counterattack and sealed the game with a third goal. Third-year midfielder Kate Manuelli won the ball near midfield, then played a give-and-go with fourth-year forward Brooke Bontz. Bontz’s return pass found Manuelli perfectly in stride behind the defense and Manuelli applied the finish, sliding the ball low and to Jaques’s left, making the score 3–0 in the 81st minute.

The loss, while surely disappointing, ultimately did not cost the Bears, who still won the UAA championship because Rochester (12–3–3, 5–1–1) could only manage a tie against Case (9–6–3, 3–3–1). For Chicago, a win over a top-shelf team like Wash U gives them momentum as they prepare for the NCAA tournament, which they’ve now reached in three consecutive years.

“This is a great win to have going into the postseason. It shows us that we can compete on the highest level,” Gormley said. “After losing last weekend to Brandeis, we were feeling a little down, but beating the seventh-ranked team in the nation leaves us feeling like we can do well in the tournament.”

Chicago’s attention now turns to Aurora, their first round opponent. Though no opponent can be overlooked in the playoffs, the Maroons know they have the personnel to handle the Spartans, who they already defeated 2–0 on September 26.

“We are so excited that we get another chance in the tournament. We just want to continue improving with each and every game and make a great run in the tournament,” Benoit said.