November 14, 2008

Women’s soccer readies for return to postseason

The women’s soccer team seems to enjoy playing with the mantra of “win or go home,” even if it tests the nerves of their cheering section.

That’s how the Maroons (12–5–1) played the 2007 season’s final stretch, winning three straight conference games to secure a once-unlikely NCAA tournament bid. That’s how they closed out the regular season this year, dominating the back end of the schedule with six straight wins to make the bracket once again.

And that’s how they’ll have to continue playing, now that a loss means an exit from the tournament and a nine-month vacation to think about it. The team’s returning members know how hard that exit can be after last season, when UW–Stevens Point took a second-round win on penalty kicks that followed a 0–0 tie.

“Ending last season in P.K.s was definitely disappointing, and in a sense it motivates us because, knowing what it feels like, you never want to put yourself in that situation again,” said fourth-year midfielder Siggy Nachtergaele. “The main thing on our minds though, is that at this point, we have a clean slate—nothing matters but the game at hand. The stakes are higher and the pressure is on, which makes it a very exciting atmosphere to play in.”

The Maroons’ first test comes today in the form of Wittenberg (11–3–6), a team that has qualified for the tournament in three consecutive seasons.

“We have prepared to play Wittenberg all this week at practice, so I feel like we are really ready,” fourth-year keeper Polly Cline said.

A regular in the early-season rankings, Wittenberg has prided itself on tough defense this season. Fourth-year keeper Jordan Bamberger has allowed just 13 goals en route to 11 shutouts with a .817 save percentage.

The Tigers’ starting set features three defenders, with fourth-years Lauren Johnson and Jamie Mack and second-year Janelle Hively guarding the Wittenberg box. The result has been a dearth of scoring opportunities for opponents, with Wittenberg outshooting rivals by a 255–143 margin.

The Maroons will need to capitalize on the chances they find, a problem for Chicago’s offense earlier in the season. They might not get the 18 shots they took in a 1–0 loss at UW–Eau Claire on September 19, nor will they be given the 24 shots they had in another 1–0 loss to Brandeis on October 17.

Of late, however, the Chicago offense has been able to overcome defenses that have offered few openings. The Maroons took a 2–1 win at Case on October 31 despite being held to just 11 shots, and the regular season finale saw Chicago take just eight shots in a 1–0 win over Wash U.

Instead of worrying about the Wittenberg defense’s impressive credentials, the South Siders will look to create holes that result from Wittenberg’s overloaded back line.

“[If Wittenberg starts three defenders], that means our outside midfielders have a lot of space and time to attack the end line. So we need to switch the field to be successful,” Ndyabagye said. “Their formation or any formation doesn’t affect the way I play up top. If I just play smart, hard, and do my role as a forward then I’ll be fine.”

Chicago, meanwhile, has allowed just four goals in the past eight games and is focused on shutting down a Tigers offense that has scored just two goals in its past four games. Wittenberg has just one win over that span.

If the Maroons can advance past the first round, they will likely play Calvin (17–2–1), who is hosting Chicago’s four-team opening bracket and is favored to take a first-round win over Mount St. Joseph (14–4–2).

While Chicago has never met Wittenberg on the soccer field, the Maroons have Calvin fresh in their minds after their early-September meeting ended in a 1–1 tie.

“Playing Calvin on their turf is always a battle. We tied them earlier this season, and I remember it being a very physical and emotional game,” Cline said. “I’m not sure they have the talent like a team like [22nd-ranked] Wheaton, but talent isn’t always everything one given day, and they definitely challenged us. Of course, I’m confident we’ve got what it takes to beat them this time around if we come out ready to play our game.”

If Chicago can continue to advance, they’ll have to get past second-ranked Messiah (19–0–2) in the third round, a tall task against a team that has outscored opponents 99–8 this year.

For now, though, the Maroons are determined to focus on the task at hand, a win over Wittenberg.

“We have definitely been focusing solely on the Wittenburg game; we’ll take on the next challenges as they come,” Nachtergaele said. “In a win or go home situation like this, we have to approach every game like it’s our last and can’t afford to get distracted by the possibility of the future.”