November 13, 2007

The higher they rise, the harder they fall: Women’s soccer tops Aurora in first round only to lose on PKs to Pointers

For a new generation of women’s soccer, the first brush with success was short and bittersweet, as the team experienced the frustration of an unexpected second-round exit from the NCAA tournament.

The Maroons (12–4–4) initially advanced past Aurora on Saturday to set up a rematch against UW-Stevens Point (16–4–2) in Sunday’s second round. The two teams battled through a scoreless 110 minutes of regulation and overtime, and eventually squared off in the dreaded penalty shoot-out. And for the third time in three seasons, a Chicago soccer team would see its postseason hopes deflated by the last resort at determining victory.

Early in the shoot-out, Pointer midfielder Emily Walsh curled her shot wide, giving Chicago an early lead, but the edge was immediately taken away by goalkeeper Meredith DeCaluwe, who saved the following Maroon attempt.

With the two teams still equal through five rounds, the skills roulette proceeded to sudden death: Each penalty shot took on extra weight as a potential game-winner.

In the sixth round, DeCaluwe saved another Chicago attempt, putting the Pointers on the verge of triumph, but fourth-year goalkeeper Amanda Sutter made a superb stop on the next penalty taker, tipping the ball over the bar and keeping the squad in contention.

In the end, it was DeCaluwe and not Sutter who was to emerge as her team’s savior, coming up with another big save in the seventh round. Sutter was then powerless to stop second-year midfielder Jackie Spees’s shot, which hit the back of the net, winning the shoot-out 5–4 and sending Stevens Point into the next stage of the tournament. The Maroons were left to examine the accomplishments and shortcomings of the season—a reflection they had hoped to put off for at least another week.

“You’re obviously devastated by losing in penalty kicks because of the drama of it all, but for me, the disappointment wasn’t the penalty kicks, it was the fact that we didn’t get it done during regulation or overtime,” head coach Amy Reifert said.

Chicago was able to get it done against Aurora (19–3–1) Saturday, only needing three minutes of overtime to peel away from the competition. In the process, the team outshot the Spartans 15–5, holding a 6–1 advantage in free kicks.

The Maroons enjoyed most of the possession, as Aurora generally looked to counterattack. The visitors nearly took advantage of that tactic in the early stage of the game, as the lone Spartan forward, second-year Kim Knaub, was released into the box with an early pass, only to nudge her shot wide of the net. Despite the early scare, the defense was well equipped to deal with Knaub, containing her efforts to break free for the rest of the match.

Chicago’s offense, on the other hand, continued on its dynamic streak, but was unable to translate its creativity into a goal within 90 regulation minutes, despite the numerous chances carved out or else handed to them by a shaky Aurora defense.

It was a long time coming, but Chicago’s pressure paid off three minutes into the first overtime period. First-year defender Claire Denz’s corner kick was challenged in the air by second-year goalkeeper Jenny Jarvis. The ball fell to second-year winger Katie Klamann, who had enough time to take the ball down and slot it calmly into the back of the net. It was her first goal for the Maroons, and it couldn’t have come at a more crucial time.

Reifert and the squad had to wait nearly three hours before finding out who their opponents for the next day’s match would be. In Saturday’s late match, Stevens Point edged the St. Benedict Blazers 3–2 in double overtime, with the winning goal coming 15 seconds before the game could be decided by penalty kicks.

The Pointers offered no surprises, having dealt the Maroons their first home defeat since 2003 earlier in the season, a 2–1 result that marked the nadir of a four-game slump. There were no doubts, however, that Chicago had improved drastically since then, and the squad was eager to show it.

“They broke our 35-game home win streak, and we absolutely felt like there was an opportunity for us to get some redemption,” Reifert said.

Aside from revenge, Sunday’s match had greater stakes to play for—namely, a choice matchup with defending national champions Wheaton. Stevens Point put the Chicago defense under pressure early through star third-year forwards Amanda Prawatt and Kaylee Weise, who had combined to tally all three goals versus St. Benedict less than 24 hours before.

“As the game evolved, their strategy began to rely on quick counters,” said fourth-year defender Amanda Catalano about the task of defending against two players who had previously given them trouble. “We had to make sure there was good cover because we were pressing so hard and we didn’t want to get caught in transition.”

Led by Sutter and Catalano, the back five were able to limit the movement of Prawatt and Wiese, allowing the rest of the team to exert more control over the game. For the most part, the Maroons dictated the direction of traffic, recording 27 shots to the Pointers’ 15 and forcing DeCaluwe to make six saves through 110 minutes. Sutter notched three saves to earn her 10th shutout of the season.

Some of the best chances created by Chicago again came in the first overtime period. Third-year Anne Scherer headed one wide from Denz’s corner, while another was deflected to classmate Olivia Ndyabagye inside the six-yard box; she shot well over the crossbar.

In the second overtime period, Stevens Point found enough room to threaten the Maroon goal. On the counterattack, Prawatt ended her run into the box with an angled shot that Sutter covered at the near post.

As time ran out on both teams, anxiety settled down upon Stagg Field. Such a closely contested match between two top teams would essentially come down to individual contests of probability, and faced with the reality of that moment, the team’s ability to push for a result was finally exhausted.

But in disappointment lies the potential for growth, and the Maroons can look back on 2007 as a season where they rediscovered their own potential and in doing so started to forge a new identity.

“We still need to fix the little things that we didn’t do well, that would’ve put us over the top—the things that would have made this a 2–0 game instead of a 0–0 PK game, but the pieces are there, the foundation is there, who they need to be as a team is there, how they need to work is there,” Reifert said. “I felt like this [season] was a consistent return to us being the hardest-working team on the field this year, every game.”

Next year they will do it all over again after graduating an influential core of seniors, including Sutter and Catalano, as well as forward Christine Farmer and midfielders Eva DeLaurentiis, Katherine Gasho, and Meryl Prochaska. Despite that sizeable loss, the development of the team’s younger personnel has yielded a dramatic change in confidence, leading to some dominant performances, notably toward the end of the UAA schedule.

“I don’t think I would do the team justice if I tried to describe its character in just a few sentences,” Catalano added. “When we were 6–3–3 and near the bottom of the UAA it seemed impossible to even have a chance at the postseason, but the incredible thing is that every person continued to work hard to make it happen.”

The Maroons’ rejuvenation at the end of the season—along with the sense that the team had not yet peaked—makes Sunday’s abrupt tournament elimination all the more difficult to reconcile, but the Maroons will head into the offseason knowing they have set themselves up for next year in a big way.

“This team has grown up this season, especially our underclassmen, who have had to step up,” Scherer said. “We need to take our determination and our will to win and the heart that we’ve shown in games and carry that with us into the 2008 season.”