Women’s Soccer: Wildcats look to improve offense ahead of Big Ten Tournament
October 27, 2016
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With Wednesday’s win over Illinois, the Wildcats accomplished their regular season goal of winning the Big Ten. However, the night also saw wins from the conference’s other elite teams — Minnesota and Penn State — leaving Northwestern with just a share of the title and the third seed in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament.
Regardless of their seeding, though, the Cats (14-1-3, 7-1-3 Big Ten) have momentum on their side. The title, even split three ways, is the first in program history and shows NU’s resolve, which it will carry into Sunday’s first-round matchup with Nebraska (11-5-3, 5-3-3).
But resolve will only be able to take the team so far. The Cats could find themselves underdogs as early as the second round, where second-seeded Penn State awaits if the Nittany Lions emerge victorious from the opening slate.
NU leaned on its defense throughout the season, but with a matchup looming against a Nebraska squad that held them to a 0-0 tie on Oct. 16, the Cats could benefit from added offensive firepower.
“(We’re) just trying to find that final pass in the attacking third (and) get the ball in the back of the net,” sophomore defender Kayla Sharples said after Wednesday’s win. “We’ve struggled with that.”
In the last four games, NU scored just two goals — finishing a pair of games tied 0-0 and closing the regular season in overtime with a goal that few would call pretty.
But Sharples said the team isn’t looking for pretty, and with their front line decimated by injuries, the Cats will take whatever they can get. Still, scrappy scores are hardly a guarantee, and as the tournament opener approaches, the Cats will look to improve their attack.
“We are going to try to focus on being offensive,” junior forward Kassidy Gorman said. “We want to win. We want to move on, so we’re definitely going to try to create as many opportunities as we can in the final third.”
Coach Michael Moynihan echoed his players’ sentiments, but noted the team’s remarkable defensive effort inspired a regular season title and will likely be the foundation for any postseason success.
The Cats certainly have something to hang their hats on after allowing just four goals through conference play, and have little intention of making defensive sacrifices as they strive to refine their offense.
“Defense has been our rock,” Moynihan said. “It keeps us in every game. I expect it’ll continue to do that.”
Beating Nebraska will be anything but a cakewalk, and with either Penn State or a Rutgers team, which beat the Cats 2-0 in September, also standing between NU and the championship game, the immediate road ahead is tougher than ever before.
But after entering the season with limited expectations and finishing atop the standings, the Cats have the resilience to compete on any stage, Moynihan said.
Though not usually one to look beyond the immediate task at hand, the coach is also looking for the team to make a run when the NCAA Tournament comes around. Before it can tackle that mission, it’ll need to deal with the one ahead. And with the stakes higher than ever, NU is ready for the upcoming challenge.
“We don’t want to share a title,” Moynihan said. “We want (to win) the Big Ten outright. The Big Ten tournament is an opportunity to do that.”