Women’s Soccer: Entering final Big Ten game, Northwestern hopes for first-ever conference crown
October 25, 2016
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With one final home game remaining, Northwestern has the opportunity to at least earn a share of its first regular season Big Ten Championship.
“We say ‘Big Ten Champs;’ it’s something that all of us want so badly,” graduate midfielder Nandi Mehta said. “The fact that it’s right there is surreal.”
For a chance to win the title outright, however, the No. 23 Wildcats (13-1-3, 6-1-3 Big Ten) will have to get past in-state foe Illinois (6-10-2, 3-5-2) at Martin Stadium on Wednesday in what could be a historic night for NU.
The Cats are currently tied with Penn State and Minnesota for the conference lead with 21 points and will guarantee at least a share of the Big Ten title with a win over their rival. Although the Cats failed to jump ahead of the Nittany Lions and Golden Gophers in a scoreless tie against Minnesota on Saturday, NU still has a path to an outright title.
While the Cats and Fighting Illini battle, Penn State will host Ohio State, and Minnesota will face Maryland. If NU wins, and both the Nittany Lions and the Golden Gophers fail to win, NU will be the outright conference champions. The Cats could also clinch the title with a draw if both Penn State and Minnesota lose.
Despite the potential clinching scenarios, coach Michael Moynihan said NU’s primary focus was on itself and its own game.
“We’re trying to keep it focused on the things that we can control. If it happens Wednesday, then fantastic,” Moynihan said. “We just have to focus on the things we can control.”
Last year, the Cats defeated Illinois 2-0 with goals from then-senior midfielder Niki Sebo and then-junior forward Addie Steiner. The Fighting Illini may pose a less formidable threat than last year, as they finished 2015 with a 10-6-3 record.
Illinois, however, has been on a hot streak in conference play. The Fighting Illini have won three of their last five conference matchups, with wins over Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan.
But NU has been mighty in Evanston. The Cats have not dropped a game at home all season and sit at 8-0-1 at Martin Stadium. Illinois, meanwhile, has an abysmal 1-7-1 record on the road this season. NU also has not lost a conference matchup in over a month, when the Cats dropped their only Big Ten match of the season to Rutgers.
The Cats will likely rely on their defense again Wednesday. The unit has one of the top defense-goalkeeper pairs in the nation this season and has allowed just five goals in 17 games. Sophomore defender Kayla Sharples said the defense knows how strong it has been.
“We take a lot of pride in our defense,” Sharples said. “We know we have the ability to shut teams down.”
But for an NU team that has scored one goal in its last three games, executing on offensive opportunities is a must. Moynihan said the Cats had great chances off set pieces in the Minnesota game, but NU will likely need to step up its game to earn its first conference title.
In Sharples’ eyes, doing so would make the grind of off-season work all worthwhile.
“It would be absolutely amazing,” Sharples said. “We’ve worked so hard off-season and on-season. We’ve put so much heart and effort into this.”
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