October 7, 2005

Neuner hat trick helps women's soccer bounce back

Back home and facing a Top-25 team, women’s soccer was right where it wanted to be Tuesday. Even better, those two ingredients will be present again tomorrow when the Maroons host 22nd-ranked and undefeated Emory.

Coming off a shocking 2–0 loss at Carnegie Mellon in the conference opener, Chicago (6–2–1, 0–1–0) made up for lost ground Tuesday afternoon against 19th-ranked Calvin (8–2–1), dominating the whole way in a 4–0 blowout.

“We can’t afford to lose another game, and we really needed that confidence boost, especially coming into Emory,” said fourth-year midfielder Jacqui de Leon, who had perhaps her best game of the season against Calvin. “It was good for us to get our offense rolling again and to remember we’re a really good team on grass.”

“It was hugely important. This is the sort of scoring power I believe we have,” head coach Amy Reifert said. “We had lots of chances and we finished on them. We dominated the game in every aspect.”

Fourth-year striker Renee Neuner immediately made her presence felt, both literally and figuratively, clipping Calvin keeper Linda Heilman and knocking the ball in as she fumbled fourth-year right back Kay Saul’s approach.

Having expected a stopper-sweeper defensive formation from Calvin, the Maroons bench was just starting to react to the flat-back four when “Renee, of course, had already read it and was calling for the ball,” according to head coach Amy Reifert.

That goal came just two-and-a-half minutes into the match, and it was the first of her three on the game. She earned her second right at the 19-minute mark, atypically launching a shot from 18 yards out that perfectly found the upper-right corner of the net.

With a two–nil lead in the second half and an airtight defense that had conceded only one shot, the Chicago offense continued to create frequent scoring opportunities. In the 63rd minute, her fellow attackers put together a solid sequence to assist her on the hat trick. Third-year Maya Pratt, back in the midfield for this game, sent a cross to third-year striker Jordan Pouliot, who touched it to Neuner as she came around the face of the net.

The 3–0 lead allowed Reifert to use 15 substitutes, giving the starters rest and the bench players some much-desired playing time. Two of Chicago’s top reserves combined for the fourth and final goal at 72:10. First-year midfielder Olivia Ndyabagye turned on the jets, flashed a couple moves, and took the ball coast-to-coast before crossing the ball from the right corner to Pouliot. Her header past Heilman, who conceded four goals in this game after giving up only five all season, was the Chicago transfer’s second goal of the year and a mini-breakout for her.

“First year, there is just too much information,” Reifert said. “When these kids can take what they learned and have it become part of what they do, I expect [first-year midfielder Sigrid Nachtergaele], Olivia, and each one of these new kids, Jordan included, to continue getting better throughout the rest of the year.

“I’m excited for Jordan because she’s worked extremely hard to be a part of this program. We hope she can relax a bit now and become that cold, calculated finisher that we know she can be.”

The 4–0 win kept Chicago’s home record perfect in three games, all against ranked teams. While the Maroons have scored only five goals in six road games, the team dominated in a 4–1 win over third-ranked Wheaton (MA), a 2–1 win over the seventh-ranked defending champion Wheaton (IL) Thunder and against Calvin.

“I love Stagg Field. Our team plays best when we’re at home,” de Leon said. “The pace of the grass and the size of the field—big—plays to our strengths. It helps just being able to be focused and in our routine.”

That bodes well for this Saturday’s afternoon showdown against Emory (7–0–2, 1–0–0), who earned their first national ranking of the season with a 1–0 upset last Saturday over Wash U (6–4–1, 0–1–0). That win over the UAA coaches’ preseason favorite showed that the Eagles and their low-pressure defense are legitimate. Emory has outscored opponents by an 18-to-1 margin, and seven different players have recorded game-winning goals.

“The question now is if we can come back and repeat the effort, because that’s where we’ve been up and down,” Reifert said.

This game is critical to Chicago’s conference chances, particularly in a year where four teams are currently ranked and the two best have already suffered losses. They will have to take fourth-year goalie Amy Franciscovich, who sports a 0.12 goals-against average, out of the game as much as possible. Franciscovich missed last season due to an ACL tear, but two years ago she put on a show at Stagg, saving a barrage of shots before conceding an overtime golden goal.

“If you shoot straight up on Amy, she’s going to make most of those saves,” Reifert said. “So what you try to do is create corners that are difficult for keepers to defend, get balls in the mixer, take her out of the game as much as we can.”

Emory will be Chicago’s sixth ranked opponent of the autumn, but by far the most important.

“It’s do-or-die for us,” de Leon said. “If we have two losses in the UAA, there pretty much go our chances of a UAA championship.”

If the team can continue to produce the way they have in three tough home games this year, they could have all the ingredients necessary to complete their winning recipe.