October 30, 2007

Women’s soccer keeps hope alive

On Friday, the Maroons walked onto Stagg Field with no margin for error and their postseason hopes hanging in the balance. Sunday afternoon, they charged off with two more wins and a head of steam for next weekend’s pivotal Wash U match.

In a weekend that pitted Chicago (10–4–3, 3–1–2) against two UAA opponents, the South Siders’ aggressive attack led to a 3–0 dismantling of Case (6–11, 0–6) on Friday, and a 1–0 edging of Rochester (10–5–2, 3–2–1) two days later.

Heading into Case, the Maroons had momentum behind them. While their 3–2 double overtime loss to first-ranked Wheaton last Saturday was disappointing, it made the team’s tremendous ability and promise clear.

Making good on that promise early on, Chicago set the tone by scoring twice on the Spartans in the first 20 minutes. Their first goal came in the 16th minute off the foot of fourth-year defender Amanda Catalano, who got possession after a corner kick and fired one at goal from 25 yards out. The shot didn’t appear threatening, but third-year keeper Kirsten McClain botched the save and dropped the ball into the side netting.

“I honestly didn’t think it was going to go in and I was as surprised as anyone when it did,” Catalano said. “It was a shot the keeper should have had, but maybe she was caught off guard because it was a rebound of the corner.”

It took less than four minutes for the Maroons to find the back of the goal again. Catalano was in the mix once more, this time sending a free kick into the box and onto the feet of third-year Olivia Ndyabagye. Settling the ball, Ndyabagye passed to second-year Brooke Bontz, who buried a shot from point blank to put the Maroons up 2–0.

That wasn’t the last time Case heard from Bontz, who kept pressing and looking for a second goal. In the 57th minute, second-year Claire Gill hit Bontz with a cross, which Bontz took to the six-yard line and slipped past McClain to nail the coffin shut on the Spartans.

The Maroons’ performance was every bit as dominant as the final tally indicated. Case lacked speed all across the field, but their sluggish attack stood out most. The Spartans generated only four shots on the day and fourth-year netminder Amanda Sutter got her seventh shutout of the year with a single save.

Facing such an under-matched opponent, Chicago took the opportunity to bench some of its starters and spread around the playing time. The chance to rest was well timed.

In the early minutes against the Yellowjackets, it looked like Chicago would need every bit of energy it had stored up, with Rochester’s counterattack creating several looks at goal in the first 10 minutes as the teams traded shots and went up and down the pitch.

After the early surge, though, the Jackets’ energy seemed to wane, and the Maroons began to dominate possession, with Bontz and Ndyabagye leading Chicago forward and keeping the pressure on Rochester’s defense.

As the momentum swung their way, the Maroons repeatedly opened up excellent chances to score and finally made the scoreboard off a beautiful set piece in the 36th minute.

Whistled for an illegal push, Rochester gave Chicago a free kick in the left channel. Coming forward to take the kick, Catalano served up an inswinger right to the forehead of Gill. Gill nodded it to the far post and past the outstretched arms of fourth-year goalie Molly Leitch to notch one for the home team.

“Claire Gill is great in the air,” head coach Amy Reifert said after the game. “She’s dangerous and she makes things happen, and she’ll score a lot more that way.”

One goal would prove to be all Chicago needed, as Rochester never regained the attacking ability it showed in the game’s opening moments. The Jackets’ offense slowed to a standstill in the second stanza, only managing three shots.

Knowing that a single shot could let Rochester climb back in, Chicago kept firing away as Rochester stagnated, looking for a goal to make sure the visitors couldn’t move within striking distance of a comeback.

Perhaps the Maroons’ best chance to add to their lead came in the 59th minute, when Leitch came five yards out of the goal to clear away a Chicago pass but scuffed the kick, sending the ball straight up in the air amid a flurry of onrushing Maroons. As Leitch scrambled back to her line, the teams fought for possession and Bontz emerged with the ball. Dashing into the box, Bontz had an excellent chance in front of the goal, but a clutch steal by a Rochester defender blocked her attempt.

As time wound down, the Maroons kept pressing but never found another tally, finishing out the game with a one-goal advantage that could have easily become two or three.

The win was an impressive one over a talented team that had beaten then-seventh-ranked Emory on October 14 and that had previously lost only to Wash U in conference play.

“This was an incredible effort,” Reifert said. “The kids all played their hearts out.”

The victories this weekend set up a must-win game against eighth-ranked Wash U (15–2, 5–1) next Saturday. A win, and perhaps a tie, would preserve the Maroons’ hopes of garnering an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament.

Strong as Wash U may be, the circumstances of the game may favor Chicago. The match will be played on the Maroons’ turf, and the Bears’ 4–0 win over Case on Sunday clinched the UAA Championship and a spot in the big dance. With Wash U already planning for the postseason, the sense of urgency Chicago will carry into the game may give them a mental edge.

“We’ll treat this like an NCAA game,” Reifert said, “because if we lose this game, we won’t be playing any NCAA games.”