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November 17, 2009

Visiting Wheaton nips Chicago in second round

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If there’s a downside to making the NCAA tournament, it’s this: A lot of talented teams qualify, only one will win, and, sooner or later, your team is likely to join the ranks of those whose hopes were dashed.

For women’s soccer, the time to face those not-so-fun facts came this weekend, much earlier than had been hoped for or expected, particularly after the Maroons (15–4–1) drew first- and second-round matches against Aurora (16–6) and Wheaton (17–4–1), two teams they beat convincingly earlier this season. But Wheaton, however far they have fallen from previous years, is still a team that has played in the past three national championships, and the Thunder’s talent flashed just enough Saturday afternoon to eke out a 1–0, second-round win over Chicago, spelling the end of the Maroons’ season.

“As the game came to a close it was disappointing,” third-year midfielder Emily Benoit said, “mostly because I think we all truly believed we could make a great run in the tournament.”

In Friday’s opening round, Chicago had little trouble dispatching an Aurora squad that, scrappy as it was, rarely strung together passes and didn’t have much luck pressing the Maroons’ defense at any point. Chicago took a 2–0 halftime lead on the strength of goals from third-year forward Sarah Loh and first-year midfielder Marquel Reddish, then kept the Spartan attack bottled up through the final 45 to win and advance.

Saturday’s match with Wheaton was a different matter. Going in, the prevailing wisdom was that this was an off-year for the Thunder, who were national champions in 2006 and 2007, but who picked up four regular-season losses this year and were ranked 18th going in the NCAA tournament. Furthermore, Chicago thumped Wheaton 3–1 when the teams played on September 29.

The Wheaton squad that stepped out on the Stagg Field pitch Saturday wasn’t the Wheaton of the 2006–2007 two-peat, but neither was it a team that was going to take another two-goal loss to a regional rival. Both teams opened the game at full pace, pushing each other end-to-end; both put pressure on their opponent’s defense, and it was plain early on that Chicago wouldn’t run away with this one.

But what began as an intense, well-balanced match took a bitter turn for Chicago in the 35th minute, when defender Ann Turner got the ball 15 yards from the Maroons’ goal, wound up, and chipped a shot on net. The ball sailed just above second-year goalkeeper Emma Gormley’s outstretched fingers, then just beneath the crossbar and into the back of the goal. The shot was so perfectly placed that it seemed almost unfair, but just like that, the Thunder were in a familiar position: ahead in an NCAA tournament game.

“When Wheaton went up 1–0 in the first half, we knew we were still fine, but we had our work cut out for us,” Benoit said. “We had scored multiple goals in many games so we knew this game was not out of reach.”

From then on, Chicago’s attack arguably got the best of Wheaton—if nothing else, they put more shots on the ledger than the Thunder—but great scoring chances were few. Fourth-year forward Brooke Bontz, who finished her final season as the Maroons’ second-leading scorer and tied with Loh for first in points produced, had several promising runs into the box, and more than once Chicago played an excellent ball to a Maroon in dangerous position near goal.

Yet on each chance the team created, the final scoring touch was wide, or high, or missing altogether. The second-half against Wheaton was, all at once, one of the most encouraging and most frustrating halves Chicago played this season. The team was creating opportunities to score, and doing so against a talented opponent, but the equalizer kept eluding the Maroons and the clock kept dwindling until, at last, the final whistle sounded and Chicago’s time was up.

“We pressed them a lot in the second half and had some great opportunities,” Benoit said, “but, unfortunately, we were not able to find the back of the net.”

The loss, which so little resembled the Maroons’ handling of Wheaton earlier in the year, underscores how much a match-up between teams can differ from one day to the next.

“I think they just came out really hard in the first half and finished,” first-year defender Brigette Kragie said. “We had our chances as well, but it’s the game of soccer.”

The loss brought to an end a season which began with Chicago’s being picked as the pre-season favorite to win the UAA. The Maroons went through non-conference play on a tear, then hit some snags in the UAA before beating seventh-ranked Wash U (16–3–1) in their regular-season finale—one of four victories against ranked opponents this season.

“In no way should this loss undermine everything that we accomplished this season,” Benoit said. “This season was such a success because of each and every individual’s heart and hard work.”