Bears lose in penalty kicks to Messiah in elite eight
It felt like destiny that penalty kicks against Messiah University would decide the postseason fate of the women’s soccer team.
The two opponents last faced each other in the championship round of the NCAA tournament in 2016. On another freezing night in the fall, the two battled to a 1-1 tie that went into PKs. A crossbar shot that bounced into the sidelines from Messiah’s second kicker granted the Bears the golden trophy.
On Sunday night, the women faced the no. 5 ranked Messiah squad for the first time since that matchup in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA tournament. The same crossbar shot glanced off the post, this time against WashU. Senior Maggie Brett slammed a shot that landed just inches too high, bouncing off the goal frame, and Messiah’s next five consecutive penalty kicks all snuck past goalie Sid Conner. 115 minutes after the opening whistle, as Messiah’s last kick landed in the back of the net, the Bears finally admitted defeat. In the survive-and-advance tournament, the team’s hunt for the program’s second national championship came to a close.
The Elite Eight appearance, concluding with a 5-4 loss in penalty kicks to Messiah, was a surprising run based on the team’s early-season offensive struggles. This year, even entrance to the tournament was never guaranteed. The Bears qualified for the postseason with an at-large bid, ranked sixth out of eight teams in the UAA. Their postseason success was proof of the hours the team spent on dark nights practicing on Francis Field and the buy-in from the group into the vision of the program.
“I’m just so proud of these women for investing in each other,” head coach Jim Conlon said. “We didn’t have the most unblemished regular season, but they kept believing in each other. These three months have been extremely rewarding and satisfying.”
In the team’s game against Carnegie Mellon University in the Sweet 16 round on Saturday, they faced a team that had beaten them on their own turf earlier in the season. After an even first half, the Carnegie offense broke the game open. A forward dribbled up to the right corner of the box and was brought down inside the 18-yard box for a foul; a shot from the Tartans slotted past Conner’s outstretched arms.
But after a season where the Bears saw more losses and ties than they did wins, they were used to playing at a deficit. With 25 minutes left in the game, Maggie Brett scored the tying goal, picking the ball up on the right wing and artfully dribbling past three defenders to slot the shot past the keeper. In a closely contested game, it changed the momentum favor toward the Bears, and WashU continued to dominate possession. A selfless assist from Brett to Ella Koleno meant that the Bears would survive for one more game. Their 2-1 victory was their third consecutive postseason win.
On Sunday, WashU knew it had a battle ahead of them. Messiah was one of the top five-ranked teams in the country and hadn’t been scored on for its past ten games. But despite the difference in ranking — despite the fact that Messiah was 19-1-3 on the season — the possession was evenly distributed in the first fifteen minutes. With thirteen minutes in the half, a free kick near the midfield from Conner allowed senior Riley Alvarez to tap the ball in the back of the net, a trickling shot that gave the Bears the advantage. The Falcons scored twice in the middle minutes, but a selfless assist from Alvarez gave the ball to junior Tyler Wilson at the edge of the box. Tyler hit a rocket into the top left corner to tie the game, 2-2.
“We trusted our women to pass the ball, to hold it; Riley Alvarez’s first goal was really good, and the second goal was just first class,” Conlon said. “We had kept the ball, and Riley made a very unselfish pass when a lot of people would have shot the ball into a crowded space. And Tyler hit an absolute banger in traffic. They were two great goals and just great soccer plays, and that’s what we’re proud of.”
After 90 minutes of playing plus two ten-minute overtime with a few frustrating drives towards the goal, the Bears headed into penalty kicks. Conlon had a simple message for his entire team: “We love you,” he told them.
Ultimately, the four penalty shots made by the Bears were not enough to match the five from the Falcons. As Conner dove to the right and the ball shot in the back of the net, Messiah rushed the field. After hours on the pitch, an unanticipated journey to the NCAA tournament would end.
“We were ready for it, and it was a great soccer match, it really was,” Conlon said. “They got the better of us this day, as we said last night. Last night hurt. It was painful, and it is not the way we wanted it to end. But the journey was so, so special.”