November 9, 2004

Women's soccer gains home playoff berth

Sometimes it doesn't matter how you get to the postseason, so long as you do in the end.

No stranger to playoff drama in recent years, the 11th-ranked Maroons made the NCAA selection committee's job a lot tougher after their shocking 3-0 loss to Wash U Saturday, but they still earned their third consecutive postseason berth.

Perhaps most shocking about the loss was Chicago's lack of competitiveness. The 16th-ranked Bears' first goal came only three minutes in, as first-year Kim O'Keefe headed home a corner kick for her fifth goal. Only managing four shots—one on net—the rest of the way, the Maroons (14-2-2, 5-1-1) never recovered.

"The first goal by Wash U definitely took us by surprise," third-year defender Elise Aiken said. "We're not a team that gives up many goals, so it was odd for us to give one up in the first couple of minutes. That in itself was an early sign that we were not at our best on Saturday."

The Bears didn't stop there, however, tacking on insurance goals in the 38th and 84th minutes. Wash U (16-2-0, 6-1-0) locked the game down by playing aggressively, outfouling Chicago 10-5.

"They were the better team that day," said third-year forward Renee Neuner, who failed to score for only the second time in eight games. "They seemed to win everything in the midfield, and their defenders definitely presented a challenge for [first-year Christine Farmer] and me."

The season finale loss was a repeat of last year, when Chicago lost in double overtime at home to the Bears to give up the UAA lead. Also like last year, they still picked up one of four at-large bids available in the 45-team field, drawing a first-round bye. Chicago hosts Wednesday's winner between University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (15-4-1) and Concordia of Wisconsin (14-6-1) Saturday at 1 p.m.

Although no Chicago team likes missing an opportunity to defeat Wash U, it was still better to lose now rather than later when one defeat sends a team packing.

"Now that we're in it's so important for us to use Saturday's loss as a focal point—we can take that game and look at what we need to work on," Neuner said. "That loss will stay fresh in our minds. I think that will motive us to improve individually and collectively."

Part of learning from the most recent loss will be regaining the scrappiness that helped the team get through its midseason injuries. Winning 50-50s and playing tight defense won't necessarily prevent the bad bounce, but it will help control its impact.

"Sometimes things just don't go your way, but that shouldn't be because you didn't do everything in your power to try and make them," Aiken said. "We want to make the tournament go our way."

Having experienced the highs and lows of playoffs, the Maroons have matured to the point where they understand how postseason play differs. Each play is more pressing, a loss more significant, and there are no teams one can look past. Beginning the moment after Sunday night's announcement, the women's focus turned to dominating Saturday at home, where they haven't lost since last year.

"We understand the necessity of increasing our intensity level," Neuner said. "We've been there and we know what it takes to be successful—now it will just be about putting all the pieces in the puzzle."