November 29, 2005

Era’s end: Women’s soccer falls in Final Four

It seems unfair that a season and a career of sweat and tears can end in a matter of seconds. Women’s soccer, which had already delivered the coup de grace to four teams in the postseason, found that out the hard way Friday in what will long be remembered as the end of an era. It was the most successful four years in the modern era of Maroon athletics.

After a season in which fortune favored Chicago (18–3–2), the women finally ran headlong against bad luck Friday afternoon in a tight, back-and-forth battle between two very good teams. The top-ranked eventual national champion Messiah Falcons (22–0–1) took advantage of a timing error in the first half and scored with 16 seconds remaining before the break. With the score tied at one in overtime, they struck again, using a defensive miscommunication to knock the Maroons out of the Final Four. Though Chicago controlled the game from the second half on, the team couldn’t finish it off.

“I thought honestly this was the best 90-plus minutes of soccer we have played all postseason,” head coach Amy Reifert said. “I said to our kids that you have nothing to hang your heads about. Yet it was incredibly disappointing because either team could have won the game. The frustrating part is we are as good as Messiah. And we could have won a national championship, and we didn’t—not to take anything away from Messiah.”

All early indications were that Chicago would be able to dominate, as the Maroons came out gunning the game’s first three minutes. Fourth-year midfielder Randi Leppla had the best opportunity in that time, collecting the ball from 35 out, making a run to the top of the box, and sending a shot that just squeezed past the left post 1:43 in.

By the fourth minute, Messiah was able to show how it punched its ticket to North Carolina, pouring on a balanced, possession-oriented attack more technically proficient than any the Maroons had faced all year. Accustomed to teams trying to send the ball over their heads, Chicago’s defenders played back, giving the Falcons plenty of space to pass the ball around and allowing them to send as many as seven players attacking.

Of course, the Chicago backs also showed why they’ve been so impenetrable this season. In the fifth minute, fourth-year right back Kay Saul turned the ball over to second-year Falcons striker Annie Futato in Chicago territory. Futato seemed to have a clear opportunity at the goal in transition, but fourth-year center defender Diana Connett made an aggressive slide tackle from behind to clear the ball.

With 23 minutes left before the break, Chicago again turned the ball over in the midfield, and Futato collected the ball in the area side-by-side with a scrambling defense. Fourth-year keeper Andrea Przybysz came out and made a kick save falling to her left, and Messiah’s two opportunities off rebounds were cleared at the goal line by Connett and fourth-year center defender Elise Aiken.

The Maroons also had offensive spurts of their own in what proved to be an even-handed game. In the 28th minute, fourth-year midfielder Monica Michelotti collected the ball in the middle of the field and ran 30 yards in transition before finding fourth-year striker Renee Neuner at the top-right corner of the box. Neuner’s shot traveled just over the crossbar.

After a series of solid first-half opportunities for both sides, the Falcons ended up getting an extra chance. As one would expect from a team riding a 21-game unbeaten streak, they were able to capitalize on it.

The official timekeeper neglected to restart the clock for close to a minute after an injury had stopped play with 2:07 left in the half. That extra time would be more than enough for Messiah, as first-year striker Rachel Horning sent a cross from the left edge of the box to second-year striker Corrie Jones, who finished for her fourth goal of the season. That tally came with just 16 seconds left.

Down 1–0 at the break, the Maroons came out determined in the second half and made much needed tactical adjustments that shifted momentum their way. Reifert instructed her two outside mids, fourth-year Jacqui de Leon and first-year Olivia Ndyabagye, to stop marking Messiah’s outside mids and to instead let Saul and fourth-year left back Ellen Fitzgerald handle them. That allowed Chicago to use the attack as the team’s best defense, closing up the room that the Falcons had used in the first half.

“It just took us too long to adjust to that in the first half,” Reifert said. “In the second half, it just really wasn’t that much of an adjustment. When we really started to pressure them, it changed the whole dynamic of the game.”

In the 58th minute, Chicago finally broke through. The skillful de Leon beat her defenders down the sideline and crossed the ball to Michelotti, who finished for the equalizer and her fourth goal of the year.

“Sometimes in that sort of game where you expend a lot of energy to score, there may be a letdown in the next five minutes, and that didn’t happen,” Reifert said. “And when it didn’t, I thought, ‘We’re in business.’”

The Maroons had a series of chances 15 minutes later, as Chicago earned three consecutive corners dangerously delivered by de Leon and first-year midfielder Siggy Nachtergaele. None of those translated into scores.

Both sides continued creating chances at the end of the second half, but Chicago maintained overall control into the overtime period. Five minutes in, de Leon found second-year striker Christine Farmer with a pass along the top of the box, and Farmer sent a hard shot that Grose bobbled and let roll for a corner. Chicago failed to capitalize on the subsequent chance.

Two minutes later, Messiah converted their final opportunity. Thinking that the ball had been played back to her by a teammate, Przybysz cleared a rolling ball out of bounds, giving the Falcons a throw-in. Futato launched a high toss right into the area, which Connett partially cleared with a header. The ball bounced around off a few bodies, and Przybysz and her defenders were caught out of the play as the ball rolled to third-year striker Cali Pitchel who launched a shot into the back of the net to knock the Maroons out with the golden goal.

More than just ending this season’s national-championship hopes, the game also marked the last stand of a dynasty. Though the team will carry over a talented set of underclassmen, the face of the squad will change dramatically. For the first time in four years, the team will not be built around de Leon, Neuner, Connett, Michelotti, Saul, Fitzgerald, Aiken, Przybysz, Leppla, Melissa Arndt, Kelsey Hotchkiss, Sarahjon Kerins, or Lexy Binder.

“If you were to say to me, what is our biggest issue next year, it’s going to be chemistry because this senior class has dictated chemistry and leadership the last four years,” Reifert said. “I know we have leaders in the underclassmen, but with these seniors there hasn’t been much of an opportunity yet for people to step up.”

This class of 13 wasn’t just revered for its leadership; it was undoubtedly the most successful single class to don a Maroons uniform in recent memory. Individually, this group holds the program career records in goals (Neuner with 78), assists (de Leon, 29), points (Neuner, 171), goals-against average (Przybysz, 0.60), and shutouts (Przybysz, 34). Neuner, de Leon, and Connett have all been named All-Americans iand deserve to each win their second certificate for this season’s play. Neuner was also named the 2003 Division III Player of the Year when she scored 21 goals and 7 assists.

More significant has been this group’s ability to produce wins, more than any other class in Chicago soccer history. They finished with a 65–12–9 record, good for an .808 winning percentage, and lost only eight of 72 regular season matches. They produced 48 of those 65 game-winning goals. They earned the only number-one poll ranking in school history. The 2003 club was the first Maroons team to ever play in a national title game, one that Chicago ultimately lost 2–1 in overtime. All in all, the Maroons made the NCAA postseason all four years, the only Chicago team to ever achieve that, despite never winning a UAA title.

“The thing that makes this class so special is the consistency of performance over four years,” Reifert said. “That’s what in my mind is going to be the lasting legacy: how much these kids stepped up in practice and in games. Also it’s not like there wasn’t trauma. Everyone faced some adversity. That’s what I love about this group of kids: Their commitment to this program and to each other is the reason they were so successful.”

Though next year’s team, missing 9 of this season’s 11 starters, will bear little resemblance to this year’s, it should still be one of the nation’s top teams. Farmer, who produced a huge chunk of the team’s offensive chances this year, will be the team’s top striker, and Nachtergaele and Ndyabagye will give opposing backs fits with their speed, skills, and vision in a full-time role. The back poses the most questions for Reifert, who will have to choose between her returning backups and recruits in in totally rebuilding the defensive unit.

Still, Reifert has high hopes for her next class, especially with the exposure that this outgoing group has earned the program.

For returning players, the legacy will be much more than wins and losses. The intangible confidence and winning attitude that these players brought to the team will be the most lasting effect.

“They taught us what it is to work hard and to give your all in every game,” Farmer said. “And they showed us that the most important part of being on the team is sharing the experience with other people.”

The women’s soccer team has reached previously unattainable heights, and twice in the past four years it has been close enough to feel the pain of just missing. That in itself is accomplishment enough, one that few other teams anywhere achieve.

“Our kids know disappointment,” Reifert said. “But they know disappointment because they’ve played for it all.”