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Women’s soccer shoots for third straight NCAA Final Four

| Senior Sports Editor

The leaves have fallen, and the women of autumn are marching on: The Washington University women’s soccer team is two steps from another Final Four.

Two games, for a team that has lost just once in 410 days, against 13 ranked opponents, in a title run and all. Two wins, and the Red and Green will stomp into Greensboro, N.C. two weeks from tomorrow for another NCAA Division III Semifinal and another shot at the National Championship.

Jessica Ridderhoff recieves a pass in front of a Wittenberg defender in the Bears 1-0 win in the NCAA Second Round. The Bears continue their postseason with the Sectional Semifinal game aganist Wisconsin-La Crosse on Friday.Cece Heard

Jessica Ridderhoff recieves a pass in front of a Wittenberg defender in the Bears 1-0 win in the NCAA Second Round. The Bears continue their postseason with the Sectional Semifinal game aganist Wisconsin-La Crosse on Friday.

But advancing those two steps will be tough, and the environment alone will be enough to make any Bears fan sweat, even in the cool air.

First they’ll have to beat No. 15 University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UWL), a team with two more wins than Wash. U. and an equal number of losses: one. Everything the Bears do well, the Eagles do similarly well. Wash. U. scores 2.74 goals per game; UWL scores 2.74 goals per game. Wash. U. scores on 11.1 percent of its shots; UWL scores on 12.9 percent of its shots. Wash. U. gets 44.1 percent of its shots on target; UWL gets 49.5 percent of its shots on target.

Both teams had incumbent options but ultimately settled on rookies in net: The Bears have given 72 percent of the minutes to freshman goalkeeper Emma Greenfield, while the Eagles have given 63 percent of the minutes to their own first-year goalie, Lily Brock. And both have stepped up on otherwise veteran squads. Greenfield has saved 90 percent of shots, while Brock sports a .915 save percentage.

For the Red and Green to move on, the defense will have to continue to be impenetrable. The dual shutouts in the first two rounds were no accident. The Bears held Dominican University and Wittenberg University to just three shots total, their best two-game stretch all year. That stifling back line might be the differentiator in the Sweet 16. While UWL goalies have had to make 107 saves all year, Wash. U.’s have only had to make 35.

The two offenses are similarly efficient with the ball; the game may come down to which team minimizes the other’s opportunities. If the Red and Green can maintain possession in the opponent’s half for long stretches like they did last weekend, the results should follow.

Still, there are key personnel differences this round. Where Dominican relied on a star forward, and Wittenberg featured no elite scorers at all, the Eagles’ attack is balanced and formidable. UWL will send out four players who scored between 24 and 33 points, and another four between nine and 15. The Bears won’t be able to hone in on a sole threat or dare someone to force the issue; they’ll have to cover all their bases for at least 90 minutes.

If the Bears fly past the Eagles, they’ll again have to earn their way past the Elite Eight. In a potential quarterfinal matchup await one of two familiar foes: No. 4 University of Chicago or No. 18 Wheaton College.

The Thunder are one of only two teams to avoid losing to the Red and Green this season, battling to a 2-2 tie in September. And they were impressive in the way they did it on both ends of the field. Not only was Wheaton the only team to score twice on the Bears this season—at Francis Field, at that—it didn’t bank on isolation and spectacular plays. The Thunder moved the ball seamlessly between attackers in a way that Wash. U. hadn’t permitted and hasn’t since, generating three of the four assists allowed by the Red and Green all year. Wheaton was equally impressive defensively, holding the Bears to 29.6 percent shots on goal—one of just two teams to keep Wash. U. under the 30 percent mark.

As scary as the Thunder sound, Chicago would be an even more daunting assignment. With the Maroons hosting the weekend, the Bears face the unenviable possibility of needing to replicate their strongest performance of the season. Though Wash. U. conquered then-No. 1 Chicago at Stagg Field less than two weeks ago, all bets are off in a playoff atmosphere. During its seven-game winning streak versus the Maroons, Wash. U. has not played Chicago twice in the same season nor in a postseason matchup. In a second look at the Red and Green, with its season in the balance, Chicago will be hungry for revenge and the crowd will be loud. Whichever rival Wash. U. potentially faces, the Bears will have to claw their way through.

One thing to watch for on Wash. U.’s end: Junior midfielder—and west Chicago native—Darcy Cunningham was nicked up towards the conclusion of Sunday’s match. Any unavailability could throw a wrench into the Red and Green’s schemes, where she’s been a regular starter all season.

The Bears take on La Crosse Friday at 1:30 p.m., after learning the result of the prior Chicago-Wheaton game.