On the brink of winning the University of Chicago's first ever national championship, the women's soccer team (17-2-4) lost a heartbreaking overtime decision 2-1 to State University of New York Oneonta (21-1-3) on Sunday. Leading with under a minute to play, the Maroons gave up the tying goal with just 29 seconds remaining in the game. Oneonta notched the winning tally only 2:54 into the first overtime period to give the Red Dragons the win and the Division III title.
The Maroons appeared to have the game wrapped up, as they carried a 1-0 lead into the final minute. Then Oneonta senior Rose Velan gained the ball outside the Chicago penalty box, and Maroon second-years Ellen Fitzgerald and Randi Leppla both charged to stop the attacker.
All three players collided, and a foul was awarded to Oneonta. Velan quickly played the free kick into the middle of the box, where the Chicago defense had not yet set up. A scramble ensued, and though Chicago keeper Andrea Przybysz attempted to knock the ball away, it instead bounced off her foot. With the net wide open, Oneonta junior Brooke Davis poked the ball in to tie the game.
The first half of the game was played evenly between the two teams, with Chicago's lone goal coming when second-year midfielder Jacqui DeLeon headed in a cross by first-year Misa Bretschneider at the 32:39 mark. However, as the second half started, Oneonta began a relentless push that would not stop until the end of regulation.
The offensive drive by Oneonta created multiple corner kicks and many scoring opportunities. "We didn't change our strategy at all," said Chicago coach Amy Riefert. "We became defensive because they were forcing us to defend."
As the game entered overtime, the Maroons offense once again emerged, and Chicago began to generate scoring opportunities. Chicago's best opportunity came when second-year striker Renee Neuner was fouled just five yards outside the penalty box. Facing a four-man wall, second-year defender Elise Aiken rifled a straight shot towards the upper-left corner of the goal. The shot beat the keeper but missed wide by just inches.
On the ensuing goal kick, Oneonta advanced the ball up the right side of the field and into the Chicago penalty box. Oneonta's Sanada Mujanovic attempted to cross the ball, and unintentionally floated her cross over Przybysz and into the top left corner of the net, ending the game and Chicago's season.
"It's the worst feeling I've ever had in my coaching experience," said Riefert, who has coached the team since 1991. "We were thirty seconds away from winning a national championship. This feeling will stay with me forever."
A much more physically imposing team, Oneonta statistically dominated the Maroons as no team had all season. The Red Dragons won seven corner kicks, compared with Chicago's two, and outshot the Maroons 18-8.
Chicago also faced a significant disadvantage because of the large hometown crowd that supported Oneonta and the amount of travel the Maroons have recently endured. In successive weekends, the Maroons have traveled to Tacoma, WA and Oneonta, NY. Chicago hasn't played a home game since November 8.
Despite going 17-2-4, the best record ever by a Chicago soccer team, the women lost both their championship appearances, in the UAA Championship November 8 against Washington University, and in this NCAA title game versus Oneonta.
The Maroons advanced to the national title game on Saturday by beating DePauw University 2-1 in double overtime. Chicago took an early lead in that game at the 60:53 mark when second-year Monica Michelotti ran through a cross by Renee Neuner and put it past the DePauw goalie.
DePauw tallied the equalizer with 7:49 remaining, and the game went into two overtimes before the Maroons finally prevailed. A long ball was played behind the DePauw defense, and Neuner had a one-on-one breakaway with only the goalie to beat. She fired the ball low into the near-post corner, sending Chicago to the championship.
Although the Maroons lost in the national final, they still enjoyed the most successful season in the program's 17 years and arguably the best year of any Chicago sport since the school's Big Ten heyday. No other Chicago sports team has advanced to the final of a Division III NCAA tournament.
Throughout the season, the squad set many individual and team Chicago records. Neuner broke her own single-season goal scoring record set a year ago, with 21 goals. In addition, combined with her 20 goals of the 2002 campaign, Neuner now holds the all-time Chicago goal scoring record of 41. Neuner has 92 career points, tying the all-time record.
With 11 assists first-year Misa Bretschneider broke the previous single-season assist record of 9. Chicago keeper Andrea Przybysz now holds the record for most minutes in a season, with 2,082. Przybysz fell one shutout short of the single-season record of 11.
As a team, the Maroons set a new mark for most wins in a season (17) by any Chicago soccer team, men's or women's. They tied the mark for most wins in a row with nine. Their four ties during the season equal the totals of the 1999 and 1991 teams. Chicago scored 63 goals this season, shattering the previous mark of 54 from last year. They also tallied 54 assists, breaking the former 45 of the 1999 squad.
The Maroons will lose four seniors, but will retain their core of first- and second-year contributors. Expectations are certainly high for the 2004 team, with all five top point-getters returning and the majority of the squad's backbone defense coming back as well. Although the 2003 season ended in unbearable loss, the future is bright for the still young and ambitious squad. This team has tasted a national championship game and will set out next season to accomplish what just barely slipped through their fingers Sunday.