CHICAGO – For a team that reached the precipice of a capturing a national championship a year ago, the University of Chicago women's soccer team returns for a 2018 campaign with a major edge: The Maroons know what it takes to get there.
The experience wasn't easy at the end: concluding in a one-goal loss in the 2017 national championship match. But its overall message was very, very special.
It's those learning experiences 28th-year head coach Amy Reifert knows her team will need to utilize if the Maroons hope to make a return to their third Final Four in three seasons.
"We approach each season the same way: create a culture where we will support each other to be the best team on and off the field, push the players to be great teammates and great soccer players by establishing and living up to the standards needed to find success on a daily basis," said Reifert, who now holds 361 career NCAA wins in her 30-years of college coaching.
"We lost a special senior class who established a culture that was amazing and led to unprecedented success. But our (returners) were an integral part of that chemistry and they will build their legacy with the foundation from this group.
"The experiences they will carry forward will only strengthen our culture, our resolve, and our hunger to return and win it all."
2017 IN REVIEW
Last season was arguably the greatest in UChicago women's soccer history. The 2017 squad set a new record for wins (22), shutouts (18), goals (80), goals allowed (7), and goals against average (0.29), finishing the year with a 22-2 overall record, a share of the University Athletic Association title (6-1 record) and the team's fourth appearance in the Final Four.
The Maroons won their first 17 games to earn the nation's No. 1 ranking before falling just once in regular-season play to rival Washington-St. Louis. The loss, however, seemed to energize UChicago heading into postseason play, as the Maroons won their first four NCAA contests by a combined score of 13-0.
Newly-ranked No. 1 The College of New Jersey stood in the way of the Maroons' trip to just their second ever appearance in the title game. But it would be sophomore Hanna Watkins' early first-half goal that proved to be the difference in a 1-0 win for UChicago.
A championship was not meant to be, though. A formidable Williams squad broke a stalemate in the second half of a tightly contested championship match and it was the Ephs who would come away with a 1-0 victory and NCAA title.
Reifert and her staff were tabbed both the UAA and United Soccer Coaches Central Region Staff of the Year for their efforts.
The graduation of the 2017 senior class will be felt. Three-time All-American midfielder Mia Calamari left her mark on the record books as the career leader in assists (58) and finished just third in career points with 90. Four other starters – Kelsey Moore (USC Second Team All-Region midfielder), Whitley Cargile (All-UAA Second Team defender), Madori Spiker (All-UAA Second-Team forward) and Caroline Olivero (3 goals, 3 assists at forward) will also leave gaps for the 2018 edition of the Maroons to fill.
The returners – including 19 letter winners and seven starters – are seasoned and ready.
"We are excited for the opportunities for our returners and newcomers to compete, as we have five roles to fill," Reifert said. "It will be a combination of players who will have to step in."
Two-time UAA Player of the Year Jenna McKinney – perhaps the first three-time selection to the All-America First Team – will lead the way. The midfielder netted 15 goals and six assists (36 points) to earn D3Soccer.com's Midfielder of the Year honor, scoring four of those goals during the Maroons' NCAA Tournament run.
Fellow senior Sydney Mathis started 22 games at defender in 2017, recording two assists, and classmates Madison Navarro, Naomi Weiner, and Dana Ulrich will all join McKinney as the team's source of leadership as seniors.
"They have the birds-eye view of what it takes to get to the Final Four, as they were the last players on campus who as first-years, did not make it there," Reifert said, referring to the 2015 season when the squad was eliminated in the NCAA Second Round.
"They will remind the others of the consistent effort and focus needed to accomplish that goal."
Junior Hanna Watkins (the hero against TCNJ) started all 24 games in 2017, netted eight goals and five assists and will return as one of the leaders in the midfield. Joining her is sophomore Maddie DeVoe (eight starts, three goals), whose remarkable play caused opponents havoc late in the year.
Other keys in the middle will include three veteran juniors: Rachel Dias (24 games, 3 goals, 3 assists), Julia Lodoen (18 games, five goals) and Bri Fadden (17 games). Sophomore Claudia Hodgetts, who saw plenty of action with 21 games, four goals and an assist to her credit, also should play a large role.
Speed – and youth – serve the Maroons up front, as sophomore Katie Jasminski is back after nabbing the UAA's Rookie of the Year award with eight goals and six assists. She joins junior Adrianna Vera (six goals, three assists) and sophomore Casey Jervier (18 games) as forwards with experience.
UChicago has one more returning All-American in its arsenal, as junior Mackenzie Peebles is back after earning Third-Team All-American honors from both USC and D3Soccer.com. She netted five assists in 18 starts. Mathis, Charlotte Waechter (16 starts, four assists) and Clare Suter (eight starts) join Peebles with the most experience on the back line, but that's not all.
In goal, UChicago has not one, but two keepers with big game experience.
Junior Katie Donovan, a two-time, First-Team All-Region selection, recorded an 18-0 record in 2017 and allowed just two goals (0.19 GAA) in 1,017 minutes. Her now-sophomore teammate Miranda Malone typically held up her end of the bargain in the second half. She started just four games but played in 23, totaling 1,068 minutes in which she gave up only two goals, stopped 25 shots and held a 0.34 GAA.
FIRST-YEARS EAGEER TO CONTRIBUTE
With the graduation of five comes the influx of 12 first-years to the 2018 Maroons squad. Of the 12, there are six defenders, three forwards, two midfielders and a goalkeeper in the mix.
Reifert said their development will be a major key to her team's ability to recreate its 2017 success.
"The first years are very talented and will bring incredible depth to our squad," Reifert said. "We will need some of them to contribute immediately and I know they are excited for the opportunity. How quickly they assimilate into our system of play and adopt our culture will be very important to our level of success."
The Maroons open the 2018 slate with a home contest Aug. 31 against Whitman (Wash.) of the Northwest Conference. Knox (Sept. 6), Hope (Sept. 12), UW-Oshkosh (Sept. 16) and North Central (Sept. 20) all come to Stagg Field to round out September's nonconference home schedule before a tough task lies ahead of the Maroons Sept. 25 at preseason-ranked No. 15, Wheaton.
University Athletic Association play opens at home against Rochester Sept. 29, and UChicago's remaining home schedule features nonconference foe Illinois Tech (Oct. 18) and two UAA opponents: NYU (Oct. 26) and No. 25 Brandeis (Oct. 28).
UChicago – ranked No. 2 in the USC preseason poll – will travel to rival and No. 10 Washington-St. Louis for its UAA finale Nov. 3.
After that, the Reifert & Co. hope to be in position to make another deep run in the NCAA Tournament, but the veteran coach knows her team will have plenty to learn about itself before that time comes.
"Our focus will be on all of the little things that we need to do to accomplish our goals," Reifert said. "It will be about the journey, the relationships and the positive energy that will define our success. I'm excited about this season, this journey with this group of women and what we are capable of accomplishing."