With each second that ticked by, Chicago found itself closer to the end of its season, closer to accepting the fact that this would be the last time its seniors donned a maroon-and-white uniform. Down a goal and fighting against eighth-ranked Wash U, the Maroons needed heroics.
Then, in a matter of moments, second-year forward Brooke Bontz rallied her team with a late equalizer, before tallying another to earn the Maroons (11–4–3, 4–1–2 UAA) a postseason trip as the South Siders toppled the league-Champion Bears (15–3, 5–2) 2–1 in the marquee game in an already a banner season.
The latest chapter in the storied rivalry between the Maroons and the Bears was thrilling from the offset. Racing back and forth between the nets, the teams traded shots in a first half of aggressive offense that left little time for battling in the midfield.
Coming just inches from taking the lead on a number of occasions, Chicago watched a series of dangerous chances come up short midway through the opening stanza. In a span of eight minutes, second-year midfielder Claire Gill managed a saved shot on goal from deep within the box, third-year midfielder Olivia Ndyabagye tripped herself up on a breakaway chance, and Bontz robbed a defender just in front of the posts only to have her effort scooped up by the keeper.
Combining for a whopping 17 shots in the first period, the second-most in any Maroon contest this season, the two teams knew something had to give, and the Bears caught the game’s first break.
With 26:19 elapsed, third-year midfielder Caitlin Malone cleared the ball from the pack in front of the Bear’s lair, sending it to second-year forward Caryn Rosoff, who broke away, full speed ahead, toward Chicago territory. The last line of defense against Rosoff’s shot on goal, first-year defender Claire Denz seemingly misread Rosoff as the striker juked past Denz and ripped a shot by fourth-year netminder Amanda Sutter from 18 yards out.
Now facing a 1–0 deficit, Chicago had just seen its already tricky task, besting a top-10 team to earn a playoff spot, skyrocket in difficulty. Unfazed, though, the Maroons kept up their offensive pressure. Minutes later, Bontz knocked a seemingly unstoppable shot at fourth-year keeper Carrie Sear, but Sear hit the ball out on a dive to keep the Bears on top. Saving a Bear free kick as time expired, Sutter kept the visitors’ lead trimmed to a surmountable single goal.
As what could have been the Maroons’ final period of the year began, it seemed Wash U’s early advantage was to Chicago’s benefit. Comfortable in their second-half lead, the Bears reverted to a more defensive strategy that left the Maroons free to control the ball in front of the visitor’s posts, where Chicago earned seven corner kicks and outshot its rivals 10–4.
Despite this aggressive play, missed opportunities piled up as the Bears beat Chicago to clear corner after corner, and it was beginning to look as though the Maroons’ season would end quietly in a mix of frustration and regret.
“I just tried to keep believing that sooner or later, one of our chances was going to go in,” head coach Amy Reifert said. “We were certainly making plans to go to three strikers at about the 12-minute mark. It wasn’t panic, but it was realizing that we needed to do something different to try and score a goal.”
Just when it seemed that frustration and desperation should have piled on to hamper the team’s efforts, just when Reifert was ready to alter the team’s game plan, her belief paid off, and Bontz produced a beauty.
After first-year defender Kate Manuelli earned a throw-in at midfield following a hard fought battle for possession, Bontz found herself with the ball and room to take a shot from just behind Stagg Field’s painted “C,” 20 yards out. With a host of defenders inside the box, Bontz’s kick looked like a shot in the dark or an attempt to set up another scoring opportunity, but with dead-on accuracy and the speed of a missile, her ball locked on to the top right corner of the net and Chicago suddenly, marvelously, found itself a contender once again.
“I was just trying to get the ball in front of the goal with a service, and when I saw that I was in a position to shoot, I did,” Bontz said.
Minutes later, as Chicago continued to scramble for a potential game-winner, Bontz found herself in position again, this time tallying the team’s most important goal of the season with a messy shot in the midst of a flurry of activity in the Bears’ box.
Sending the ball in front of the net after fourth-year defender Amanda Catalano’s corner kick met her on the right-field sidelines, Ndyabagye found the head of third-year defender Anne Scherer, who in turn set up Bontz. As Wash U players raced in front of the goal to get ready for a block and Sear came out to try and catch Scherer’s header, Bontz sent it in with a short flick that gave Chicago its fifth playoff ticket in six years.
As nervous tension mounted and their victory became tangible, the Maroons refused to drop back and defend their goal, instead maintaining pressure up front until the final buzzer.
“[Once we took the lead], we tried to keep the ball out wide and in the corners of our offensive half,” Bontz said. “We held the ball in the corner because that usually results in a corner kick, or them kicking it out for a throw-in, which takes up time.”
When Gill was fouled hard with less than six minutes to play, Chicago galvanized for the final stretch, earning a free kick and a corner and taking several legitimate shots in the closing minutes. Then, as the announcer and the crowd counted down the final seconds, celebration erupted on the sidelines.
Weeks of postseason uncertainty were not yet cured, however, as the slim, yet real chance that Chicago could be passed over for an at-large bid hung over the team’s head. It wasn’t until last night, in a team gathering at Reifert’s house, that the long hoped-for announcement came, and the Maroons were officially playoff bound.
“I thought last year we’d get a bid, and we didn’t,” Reifert said. “So I was certainly nervous until we got the bid. I refused to believe it until I saw it in writing.”
This morning brought the biggest surprise yet, however, when Chicago learned it would have home-field advantage in the playoffs after Stagg was picked to host one of 12 regional tournaments. In the first round on Saturday, Chicago will take on Aurora (19–2–1) before St. Benedict (15–5–0) and UW–Stevens Point (15–4–1) square off. The winners will face each other in Sunday’s second round match.