From University of Chicago Athletics
An opportunistic early-game strike allowed the University of Chicago women's soccer team to play with a lead for nearly the entire Friday morning contest with The College of New Jersey. Clutch moments defensively down the stretch allowed the Maroons to clinch the 1-0 victory in the NCAA Division III semifinals.
The No. 4-ranked Maroons (22-1 record) reached the NCAA Division III national championship match for the second time in program history. The No. 1-ranked Lions concluded their season at 21-1-1.
"For these women to now have the opportunity to get to the pinnacle and compete for the national championship - given how much work they've done all year, how much they've sacrificed for one another - it is just amazing," said Head Coach Amy Reifert. "I am so excited for this opportunity tomorrow for them to have this moment."
UChicago wasted little time making an impact. A mere 16 seconds into the contest, senior forward Madori Spiker put a shot just over the crossbar to announce UChicago's offensive intentions.
Five minutes later, sophomore forward Hanna Watkins blocked an attempted clearance on the left sideline to send the ball back in behind the defense. Spiker ran onto the ball, dribbled through the left side of the box and centered to Watkins, who placed her shot expertly inside the right post while being taken down from nine yards out.
The two sides exchanged long possession-based offensive runs back and forth throughout the half. TCNJ struck two dangerous corner kicks in the 14th minute which were cleared out by the defenders. UChicago made a goalie change at the 20:17 mark as first-year Miranda Malone relieved sophomore starter Katie Donovan.
Watkins had another opportunity in the 27th minute on a leading feed, but her shot on the run sailed high of the left post. The 1-0 lead persisted up to the halftime break. The Maroons owned a 4-2 shot advantage in that time.
Two minutes into the half, the Maroons nearly doubled the lead. Senior forward Caroline Olivero tried to beat the goalkeeper with a shot near side, which was saved and caromed off the right post.
The second half saw offensive chances pick up for both sides. Each of the stout defenses saw some cracks form as the game progressed and fatigue set in. TCNJ and UChicago rank second and fourth nationally, respectively, in goals against average and have shut out a combined 37 opponents.
"Anytime in this type of game where you're up 1-0 at the half, you know the second half might be a bit of a barrage coming your way, and it certainly did," Reifert said. "They played a much more direct style than they had been up to that point. I was so impressed with our kids, especially our back line and goalkeeper's ability deal with a lot of pressure that came our way."
The Lions put two shots on goal that were easily saved by Malone in the 71st and 72nd minutes. Then with 17 minutes remaining, TCNJ got its best opportunity of the game. A misdirected UChicago header allowed a TCNJ forward to go one-on-one with Malone in the box. A diving attempt by the rookie goalkeeper forced the player to hurdle her, and senior defender Whitley Cargile booted the ball out of danger.
TCNJ brought plenty of pressure and took numerous shots just off frame in the final 20 minutes. UChicago was content to stay behind the ball, clear and counterattack with the lead in hand. Spiker was the frequent target at the top, and in the 76th minute, she nearly connected with wide-open first-year forward Katie Jasminski in the box. However, the goalkeeper intercepted the cross on the ground.
The Maroons effectively played keep away in the dying moments. As the clock struck zeros and the horn sounded, they officially advanced to the title match.
"I think it really just comes down to experience," said Watkins. "Last year, we were really excited to be in the Final Four, but it was more pure excitement to be there instead of being really set on winning the title. So coming into this year, we've been really excited and stoked about getting a national championship, and we just have the experience of knowing what it's like to play these top teams and be under this pressure in this great event."
"I couldn't be prouder of our kids," Reifert said. "We took advantage of opportunities when we had them – Hanna scored a great goal. We had two or three other really great looks. I think we managed the game well at the end. For us, it's been a long journey and this is the next important step."
TCNJ led shots 12-9 and corner kicks 7-3 in the box score. Watkins fired off four of her team's attempts. Malone made two saves in 69:43 of action. Donovan (19-0) earned the victory.