Sports has its share of controversy at every level of the game, and it is certainly nothing new for an unsuspecting team's playoff life to be snuffed out by the whistle of an official. From the tuck rule that sent the Oakland Raiders home early last season to the slightly less infamous skate-in-the-crease call that put the Buffalo Sabres' Stanley Cup hopes on ice, we've seen it all before.
That's why it came as no surprise when young referee Kris Koleffon nabbed a Chicago defender for what he believed was a handball inside the box, giving Wheaton a penalty kick and an opening goal that entirely changed the tempo of the match. Most seasoned observers will agree that, in a low scoring game like soccer, one goal means a great deal and is more often than not the deciding factor in the game. In the last World Cup, there was an uproar nearly every other match because of marginal calls and an unstoppable itch to blow the whistle.
The sad fact is that games in which officials are a large factor ultimately do not show who the better team is. Wheaton certainly worked hard in its 2-0 victory and is no less deserving than Chicago of the right to advance, but because of the game-altering penalty that was at worst unintentional and at best simply a blown call, no one will ever know which was the better team in Saturday's Division III regional final.
Still, the game was not without the drama and excitement befitting a championship tournament. Wheaton certainly had extra incentive to put away a Chicago team that had upset it on its home field 1-0 in early October, and the Maroons were out to prove their win was no fluke.
During the first half, Wheaton wasted no time in applying pressure to the Chicago defense. It was winning most fifty-fifty balls, dominating the time of possession, and keeping the ball in the Chicago end by not allowing the Maroon midfielders to serve the ball out to the open forwards.
In the 20th minute, Wheaton's first-half drive came to a head when its attackers forced a corner kick, a set piece that Chicago has not always handled well. The situation was made even worse by Wheaton's considerable height advantage. The kick was excellently placed and forced first-year Chicago goalie Andrea Przybysz to make a tremendous diving save to parry the ball out of bounds. The second corner kick caused similar chaos, but Przybysz came up big again, this time forcing the ball out on the other side of the goal. The Maroons finally gained possession on the third corner attempt and cleared the ball away, to the roar of the many fans who had gathered.
Six fateful minutes later, a Wheaton cross grazed the shoulder area of a Chicago defender who was ducking out of the way to avoid the penalty, but her efforts were all for naught as the whistle stopped play. On the ensuing penalty kick, Przybysz guessed correctly by diving to her left, but the shot was placed perfectly in the corner, well out of her reach.
The second half featured a change in momentum as Chicago finally began to break through the Wheaton defense with some well placed passes and much better efforts with loose balls. The Maroons' pressure nearly paid off in the 63rd minute when fourth-year midfielder and co-captain Julie Ward found herself all alone with the Wheaton goalkeeper after taking a perfectly threaded pass. Ward got the rolling shot off quickly, but the keeper had perfect position and was able to dive on the ball. Chicago continued to apply pressure throughout the half, but a 79th minute Wheaton counterattack put the Maroons down 0-2 and the game out of reach. The loss was Chicago's first and only loss at home this season.
Friday's game against the State University of New York-Oneonta was certainly more positive than Saturday's debacle. Despite giving up an early second-half goal after a corner kick deflected past Przybysz, the Maroons were able to sustain possession in the opponent's half and had the Red Dragons on their heels. Finally with under ten minutes remaining in regulation, Ward's free kick from well outside the box found its way to the feet of deadly first-year striker, Renee Neuner, who didn't hesitate to put away the game tying goal. Chicago continued to dominate well into the overtime periods until first-year midfielder Jacqui DeLeon laid a perfect centering pass back for another first-year midfielder, the charging Monica Michelotti, who easily slammed the ball by the goalie to send the crowd home in jitters.
When asked about her goal, Michelotti exclaimed, "It's great that we're advancing, and it was the hard work of the entire team that led up to [the game-winning goal]. We'd been working on finishing and laying the ball back all week in practice. Jacqui just laid a perfect ball back to me."
The Maroons' season ended with many hugs and not a few tears, but no one hung their head over the untimely defeat. "We have nothing to be ashamed of. We played as hard as we could possibly play," said head coach Amy Reifert, "We're sad because our seniors aren't coming back and our team is being broken up. It's sad because we won't have the opportunity to play with the same kids next year. We really had a great season." Reifert also told her seniors how grateful she was for the memories they have all shared over the past four years and for giving a large part of their lives to the team.
Chicago ends the season with an impressive record of 15-4-1 and an impressive fourth trip to the postseason since the creation of the NCAA tournament. Despite the loss of their prolific seniors, the first-year talent on this team is more than considerable and certainly bodes well for this team's future.