Women’s Soccer Analysis: 2nd-half surges secret to success, but not enough to earn NCAA bid

Nina Mandell

What a difference a year made for the Northwestern women’s soccer team.

After finishing in the bottom of the Big Ten conference two years in a row, the Wildcats were happy to see themselves put more marks in the win column than they have in five years and make it to the postseason for the first time since 2001.

“It was the best year NU soccer has had in a long time,” coach Jenny Haigh said. “To finish fifth in one of the most competitive conferences out there is a good step in the right direction.”

But when the Cats began looking ahead to postseason championships, their hopes of a historic season ended with an early exit from postseason play.

The Cats managed to make themselves a formidable presence in the Big Ten, tying for fifth in conference play. The five teams that finished ahead of the Cats all made it to the NCAA tournament.

“We were probably a couple of wins away from an NCAA berth,” Haigh said.

The Cats lost only one match at home, often turning things around in the second half — eight games went into overtime.

By the middle of the season, players said they were at an advantage if they went into overtime because they probably had more experience with it than their opponents.

But that strategy didn’t always work, and the Cats’ dependence on a better second half led to the team’s downfall.

As early as the second game in the season, Haigh said she needed more consistency from her team. “Being a second-half team is too little too late against great competition,” she said after losses to Michigan State and Michigan.

Despite scoring two goals in the last 10 minutes against Michigan State, NU could not overcome a 3-0 deficit and got its first loss in a winnable game.

But it took more than a midseason loss to Michigan State to seal the Cats’ fate.

After finishing the Big Ten season with a winning record, the Cats headed into their last two regular-season games, which they saw as easy wins, and started thinking about getting their first at-large NCAA tournament bid since 1998.

But the Cats picked the wrong time to look past a beatable team, and lost to Illinois State.

“The loss to Illinois State closed the door on an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament,” Haigh said after the loss.

After finishing the season with a win over Oakland, the Cats had a rematch against in-state rival Illinois, a team they tied in the last game of the regular season.

The Fighting Illini also had humiliated the Cats last season to knock them out of contention for a Big Ten tournament berth.

Players said they were looking to prove to the Illini they weren’t the same team they were last year. But this year it was NU that made an early exit again.

The Cats started slow and were “handily outplayed” by Illinois, Haigh said. It was a tough ending for a team that had come a long way since finishing in the bottom of the conference last year.

But despite losing important players from every line, the Cats have good underclassmen returning.

As a freshman, Kelsey Hans became one of the Cats main go-to players. She set the school record for the most goals scored in a season and helped produce one of the highest scoring offenses in the Big Ten.

The team also will keep second team All-Big Ten goalie Whitney Jones, a sophomore co-captain who often was credited with saving the Cats in tight games. Haigh said key players in the center of the field, such as Jones, Hans, Shannon Schneeman and Kelly Sitkowski, give her a lot of hope for next year.

“I’d like to see us develop a real competitive attitude with more consistency and get a little better organized defensively,” she said. “We’re returning almost all of our starting lineup. We have a lot of good things to work with.”

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