Season Recap: Historic ISU Soccer Season Culminates With NCAA Advancement
Dec. 20, 2013
NORMAL, Ill. - For a program at the level of Illinois State soccer, firsts are difficult to achieve. With such a rich tradition of success already established, it takes a truly special season for any one team to make its mark.
The 2013 Redbirds were up to the task.
Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and tournament titles. A perfect 8-0 mark against MVC foes, the first such record in Valley history. The MVC Player of the Year (Rachel Tejada), Goalkeeper of the Year (Aryn Newsom) and Freshman of the Year (Hannah Leinert), as well as a Senior CLASS Award finalist (Anna Stinson). And, most elusively, a NCAA Tournament first-round victory, the conference's first all-time.
At year's end, head coach Drew Roff's squad had compiled the best season in program-history.
"It was a phenomenal season," Roff reflected. "That experience of playing two NCAA Tournament games is something we will remember for a long time."
Making history was the furthest thing from the minds of ISU players and coaches through the season's first two weekends. Despite a season-opening 3-2 win over defending Mid-American Conference champion Miami (Ohio) (Aug. 23), the Redbirds stood at 1-3 two weeks in, thanks to losses against Wisconsin (Aug. 25), at Minnesota (Aug. 30) and at Illinois (Sept. 1) by a combined score of 13-2.
While obviously frustrated at the time, Roff held firm in his belief that this was one of his most talented ISU teams, and that maintaining its work ethic would eventually lead to results.
"I can't fault our players' effort," Roff said following the loss to Illinois. "When you have talented players that do give good effort, you usually expect a different result, or at least a more competitive match than the scoreboard would indicate."
Fortunately for Roff and the Redbirds, that talent would eventually begin to shine. After being held scoreless for the season's first four matches, Tejada tallied a goal and an assist to lead ISU to a 2-1 win at TCU (Sept. 6), the second over a Big 12 team in program-history. Tejada also scored the Redbirds' lone goal in a hard-fought 2-1 loss at Texas (Sept. 8). Despite only going 1-1 on the trip to the Lone Star State, that weekend's results helped restore the team's confidence moving forward.
Tejada continued her surge the following week, notching her third-career hat trick in a 4-0 home victory over SEMO (Sept. 13). The victory set the stage for a home match against No. 22 Marquette (Sept. 15), who knocked the Redbirds out of the NCAA Tournament in 2012. ISU came out on fire, as Dagny Olson, Tejada and Allie Newsom all scored first-half goals. The Golden Eagles fought back to within one at 3-2, but goalkeeper Aryn Newsom's career-high 13 saves helped preserve just the program's second win over a top-25 team.
ISU increased its winning streak to three with a 4-1 victory over Saint Louis (Sept. 17), before stumbling against Milwaukee (Sept. 20), losing 2-1, and at Kansas (Sept. 22), losing 2-0. That match, however, would end up being the Redbirds' last loss for two months, as ISU reeled off a program-record nine-game winning streak.
"All of a sudden, what was a really disappointing start turned into a fantastic ending," Roff said after the season. ISU's streak began with a 4-0 victory against IPFW (Sept. 27), the 100th of Roff's career. The win moved the Redbirds back to .500 at 6-6 overall moving into MVC action.
The Redbirds grinded out a 2-1 win at Indiana State (Oct. 4), thanks to goals from Allie Newsom and Leinert to begin conference play. The victory came at a price, however, as defensive stalwart Alyse Williams went down with a season-ending knee injury. Rhianna Krutz stepped into Williams' shoes ably, however, as a 1-0 shutout of Loyola (Oct. 13) began a stretch of four-straight clean sheets posted by Aryn Newsom and the Redbird defense.
As the defense stiffened, ISU's offense heated up. The Redbirds scored a season-high five goals in a 5-0 win at Northern Iowa (Oct. 17) before topping defending MVC regular-season champion Evansville (Oct. 20), 4-0. Leinert continued her incredible freshman season by scoring two goals in each match.
Following the Evansville victory, results from around the league guaranteed ISU at least a share of the ninth conference title in program-history heading into a home match against Drake (Oct. 27). The Redbirds seized the crown outright with a 3-0 victory on goals from Anna Stinson, Tejada and Olson.
With the title and MVC Tournament's top seed already locked up, the Redbirds still entered the regular-season finale at Missouri State (Oct. 31) with plenty of motivation, as they searched to become just the fourth team in conference-history to go through the regular-season unscathed. Tejada, Cross and Leinert all found the back of the net in the 3-1 victory over the Bears that put ISU in elite company.
"Our players really wanted to get that win," Roff said following the victory. "To them, running the table was important, and we obviously want to be in good form for the conference tournament coming up."
Still, with all that had been accomplished, any hopes of making NCAA Tournament history rested on winning the MVC Tournament. Playing at fifth-seeded and tournament-host Evansville (Nov. 8) in the semifinals, the Redbirds battled the first adversity they had in a long while. The Purple Aces took a 1-0 lead into halftime, giving ISU its first deficit over the last seven games. However, three goals in the first 14 minutes of the second half, two from Leinert and one from Tejada, led the Redbirds into the championship match with a 3-1 victory.
"I just said, `Hey, we're too good and we've worked too hard to play that way. Let's turn it up a notch, and no matter if we win or lose, at least we can say we played a game that represented Illinois State soccer,'" Roff said of his halftime message. "We got it together and connected passes, won the 50-50 balls and created chances. It looked like our team in that second half."
The Redbirds entered the title match against second-seeded Indiana State (Nov. 10) knowing they would need to perform their best. While Illinois State came in winners of eight-straight matches, the Sycamores were riding a six-game winning streak of their own, with their last loss coming against the Redbirds. Illinois State took a 1-0 lead into halftime on a goal from Leinert, before exploding for four second-half goals and a 5-0 victory. Leinert found the back of the net three times, notching the first-ever hat trick in the MVC Tournament championship match and tournament MVP honors.
The tournament title was the third-straight for Illinois State, just the second three-peat in Valley history, and fifth overall. Most importantly, however, the Redbirds were headed to the NCAA Tournament yet again. The opponent and destination would be Louisville (Nov. 16). The Cardinals were coming off a solid regular season in the American Athletic Conference, but were the first team ISU had met in the postseason not ranked in the top-25. Roff and his Redbirds prepared for and entered the match with confidence.
"When you look at our results in the league, us having a couple 15-goal scorers and the road that we took to get where we are as far as the level of competition, a lot of things point to us having a good day on Saturday," Roff said in anticipation of the match. "Whether that is a win or loss, that obviously remains to be seen, but going in to this game, I feel like we are more prepared than we ever have been in the past to be successful."
Despite ISU's confidence level, it was the hosts that struck first, as Louisville scored a late first-half goal to take a 1-0 lead into halftime. The Redbirds evened it up on Leinert's 16th goal of the season in the 54th minute. The goal was ISU's first in a NCAA Tournament game since 2003.
From there, the match opened up into exciting end-to-end soccer. However, neither team was able to find a game-winner in regulation or overtime. The match went into penalty kicks, with Tejada, Cross and Allie Newsom converting their opportunities and Aryn Newsom making two saves. For ISU's fifth turn, the freshman Olson stepped to the ball with a chance to send the Redbirds to the second round. She calmly struck the ball inside the right post, setting off a wild celebration amongst ISU players, coaches and fans.
"It was an unbelievable game," Roff said following the match. "Both teams left it all on the field. Something had to give with the shootout, which is always a tough way to win or lose. I thought both teams had some great opportunities to finish it off, and just couldn't quite do it. I'm very proud of my team. They are a very resilient bunch."
Awaiting the Redbirds in the second round was 11th-ranked and third-seeded Michigan. ISU gave up an early goal, but played the Wolverines even for the majority of the first half. However, Michigan pulled away with two second-half goals for a 3-0 victory that ended ISU's season.
The Redbirds equaled a program-record with 14 wins, going 14-7-1 overall and 6-0-0 in the MVC. Cross joined award-winners Tejada, Aryn Newsom and Leinert on the All-MVC First Team. Stinson, Olson and Abby Van Deventer were voted All-MVC Second Team, while Gabbi McArtor was named All-MVC Honorable Mention. Lastly, Leinert, Olson and Sara Stankoskey were tabbed as MVC All-Freshman Team selections.
The 2013 season was the final one for three seniors - Cross, Allie Newsom and Stinson. The trio combined to make 65 of a possible 66 starts this season, and leaves as the second class in program-history to win three MVC Tournament titles and make three NCAA Tournament appearances. With 49 victories over the past four years, the group is the winningest Roff has had in his seven seasons at the helm of ISU.
Despite the loss of those three starters, expectations will be high again for the 2014 campaign. ISU will return eight of 11 starters, including Tejada, who will enter the season as the active-career leader for all of NCAA Division I with 139 points and 54 goals.
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