Win, and the NCAA tournament beckons. Lose, and you’re staying home.
That knowledge propelled women’s soccer through five straight wins before Saturday’s contest at Wash U, and it proved enough motivation for one more victory, as the Maroons (12–5–1, 5–2 UAA) sealed their second consecutive NCAA postseason appearance with a 1–0 win over the eighth-ranked Bears (14–3–1, 6–1).
It took Maroons nearly the entire game to find the goal that finally sealed their postseason fate. With five minutes left in regulation, second-year midfielder Claire Denz picked up the ball on the left wing, halfway into Wash U territory. After taking a steadying touch, she sent a long, floating cross swerving into the box, where fourth-year midfielder Siggy Nachtergaele had made her run. A timely leap separated Nachtergaele from her defender, and a deft flick with the outside of her foot lifted the ball over the goalkeeper and into the corner of the net.
“I saw Claire about to take the cross in, and I figured that any touch was a good touch in that situation,” Nachtergaele said. “The keeper thought one thing and I thought another, and there was a little bit of luck, but I’ll take it.”
If “do or die” seemed like a familiar mantra for Chicago entering Saturday’s match, it was. In 2006, they needed a win at Wash U to give themselves a fighting chance at making the postseason. They lost 1–0 and were left out. And after picking themselves up from a midseason slump in 2007, the Maroons similarly needed a victory on the last day of the regular season. They achieved it with a 2–1 win over the Bears at Stagg Field, which sent them into the playoffs.
On Saturday, for the third season in a row, the Maroons (12–5–1, 5–2 UAA) entered their season closer with one clear objective: beat Wash U (14–3-1, 6–1 UAA), the three-peat conference champions and the most dangerous team in the central region.
Prior to Nachtergaele’s late winner, the two rivals had played a back-and-forth game through the first 85 minutes. Wash U found their attacking rhythm, outshooting Chicago 8–3. Keeping the Bears scoreless required the most organized efforts of the defense, including fourth-year goalkeeper Polly Cline, who collected five saves for her fourth shutout of the season.
The most dangerous chance of the first half fell to third-year forward Caryn Rosoff, the Bears’ points leader, after a save by Cline rebounded back into play, but first-year left back Maggie Tobin made a crucial block on the shot. A few minutes later, third-year defender Libby Held launched a free kick from 40 yards out, testing Cline from a distance and forcing a scrambling save.
“Wash U clearly played harder than we did in the first half with the wind [behind them],” head coach Amy Reifert said. “I felt like in the second half, we tackled and we made life a lot more difficult for them, which changed the whole dynamic. We felt like they were going to be on the weak side out wide, and in the second half, we were able to take advantage of that space.”
Chicago emerged from the break with a vastly improved possession game but rarely tested fourth-year Bears keeper Amanda Boe until Nachtergaele struck her goal with five minutes to go.
“Obviously, we’ve been in this situation before, but we also know that we perform the best under this kind of situation, so knowing we had to win, we all just came out with a can-do attitude,” Nachtergaele said. “We refused to lose, and it obviously paid off. People are beat up, people are hurting, but we played through it.”
After the huge win—capping off a 6–0 stretch to end the season—all the Maroons could do was wait for the NCAA selection committee to confirm what they all believed: that they had earned a spot in the national postseason tournament.
And so the team gathered yesterday morning in Ratner’s Jay Berwanger Trophy Room to watch the NCAA D-III selection show. Shortly after 11 a.m., the tournament’s first- and second-round brackets were released, and the Maroons learned they would play against Wittenberg University Tigers (11–3–6) at Calvin College this Friday. The winner of that game will take on the winner of the host Calvin–Mt. St. Joseph (14–4–2) on Saturday.
The Tigers made it to the third round in last year’s NCAA tournament but lost seven starters from that squad. Wittenberg won the NCAC tournament on Saturday with a 1–0 double overtime win over Wooster (14–6). The Tigers were fifth in the Great Lakes region in the last released regional rankings
Calvin will be favored to beat Mt. St. Joseph and play the winner of the Chicago-Wittenberg game. The Knights were fourth in the most recent national rankings, which were released last Tuesday. They won the final 13 games of their season, though they tied Chicago 1–1 when the teams met in Grand Rapids in September. Wash U dropped Calvin 3–2 in the Knights’ season opener.