Women’s soccer rides momentum into Final Four
This was not the first time the Washington University women’s soccer team exited Francis Field with tears running down their face—but on Sunday afternoon, the players were crying tears of joy.
For the first time since 2009, the Bears will be playing in the semifinals of the NCAA Division III tournament against No. 1 Messiah College for a shot at the championship round. The Red and Green defeated No. 22 Wartburg College 1-0 on a blustery Saturday morning and then followed up with another 1-0 victory over the No. 23 University of Wisconsin-Whitewater on Sunday.
“The Final Four is very difficult to get to—you’re talking about the top 1 percent in all of Division III,” head coach Jim Conlon said.
“It was incredibly exciting,” senior defender Sam Ezratty said. “It’s so rewarding and powerful just to know that we did it and we did it as a team, all 31 of us together.”
With the pair of wins, the Bears cement their first undefeated season at home since 2003.
Saturday’s matchup with Wartburg featured intermittent snowfall and gusting winds that topped over 30 miles per hour. Despite the unpleasant conditions, the Bears were able to create some opportunities, tallying 11 shots (five on target) in the first half, but the steady wind appeared to prevent Wash. U. from converting on their chances.
With the game still scoreless in the 58th minute, sophomore Megan Renken received a bouncing through-ball in the box, which she sent wide right. Then, two-and-a-half minutes later, junior Katie Chandler sent a shot from 20 yards out towards the right side of the diving Wartburg keeper who was able to get enough of a hand on the ball to tip it off the post and out of bounds.
The Bears eventually broke through in in the 86th minute. After the Bears fired off three shots in three minutes, Renken received a nearly identical through ball to the one she got 30 minutes earlier. A soft header from Chandler split a pair of defenders, and Renken finished it off with a chip shot.
“When I missed the first one I was bummed.” Renken said, “It’s easy to let those things get to you but my teammates told me, ‘You’re going to get another one, so just get the next one.’ So when I got that second opportunity I wasn’t going to miss it again.”
By comparison, the Bears’ elite eight game against Wisconsin-Whitewater was considerably less dramatic. Despite beating No. 7 Illinois Wesleyan University 2-1 in dramatic overtime fashion the day before, the Warhawks appeared overmatched by the Bears in the first half, failing to register a shot till the 47th minute. While the Bears peppered the Wisconsin-Whitewater keeper with nine shots on target, the goal that sent Wash. U. to the final four did not come from a white jersey.
“We’re gonna obviously celebrate, relax a little bit, try and spend some time with our families for Thanksgiving, come back and prepare hard for next week,” Conlon said. “But we will be ready.”
In the 41st minute, a UW-Whitewater defender attempted to clear the ball but ended up kicking it off the post and into the back of the net for the only score of the game.
“A goal is a goal—as long as the scoreboard goes our way, we really don’t mind,” Conlon said. “It is an own goal and they had a fortuitous bounce for us, but I also credit [senior] Liz Collins and [sophomore] Mia Mastriani for pressing that girl so hard to create that opportunity.”
Crist recorded one diving save in the 53rd minute for her 11th shutout of the season, tying the single-season record. Though sometimes overlooked, the defense has been the backbone of this team throughout the season.
“We all just know how each other plays, where to move and where to be at all times,” Ezratty said of the rapport the back line has developed.
While the defense has still not allowed a regulation goal since Sept. 30, the unit will face by far their toughest challenge in Messiah.
This season, the Falcons outscored opponents 100-3 on their way to a 22-0-2 record. Four players have scored in double figures for Messiah including, senior Nikki Elsaesser, whose 31 goals are more than the team totals for 228 other teams in Division III. The Falcons have also won the national championship five times in the past 10 years, most recently in 2012.
Wash. U. will square off against Messiah in Kansas City on Dec. 3. The winner will face either Center College or Williams College in the final on Dec. 4.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that the 40th-minute goal mentioned in the photo caption was an own goal by UW-Whitewater.