BELLINGHAM - It may be the start of basketball season, but you don't have to play basketball to reach the NCAA Division II national semifinals at Western Washington University anymore.
Following in the footsteps of the success of Western's men's and women's basketball teams last spring, the school's ninth-ranked women's soccer team reached the Final Four for the first time in program history with its 2-0 victory over No. 10 St. Edward's (Texas) in the national quarterfinals on Sunday, Nov. 24, at Whatcom Community College's Orca Field.
"It's not real life - it doesn't feel like real life," WWU midfielder Brina Sych said. "It still hasn't hit me that we're (one of) the top four teams in the nation right now. It's one of the greatest feelings, and as a senior, I couldn't have asked for anything better."
It could still get better, as the Vikings (20-1-1) head to Evans, Ga. - near Augusta - to face defending national champion West Florida (16-0-3) in a Dec. 5 national semifinal. Grand Valley State (22-0-1) and American International (18-2-2) will meet in the other semifinal, with the national championship game to follow on Dec. 7.
"We're really excited," WWU coach Travis Connell said. "The girls - I'm really excited for them and happy. They've been working so hard, and now we've got two more games."
Western jumped on top 5 minutes, 51 seconds in on Sunday when Sych brought a ball up the right sideline on a long run.
"I had control of the ball, and then I saw that Kristin (Maris) was completely wide open," Sych said. "I was hoping that I didn't give it too big of a touch that I couldn't get to it. It was a good touch, and I passed it right to Kristin."
The defense collapsed on Maris, who decided to pass on an open shot from straight away and feed Catherine Miles on the left side.
The result was a seemingly endless amount of time for Miles, who settled the ball with a touch before sending a rocket into the lower corner of the net.
"You never get that much time - never," Miles said. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. ... All the pressure was there. But I practiced it a thousand times, and it was just a pass and a goal."
It marked the team-high 15th score of the season for Miles, while Maris' beautiful extra pass netted her an eighth assist. Sych got her sixth.
"We've been preaching that (making the extra pass), and it's doubly hard in a game like this, where every ball is contested so hard physically," Connell said. "To still have the composure to take that extra pass and Miles being able to take the extra touch to set up her goal, we had a balance and good composure on that goal."
Western doubled the lead at the 41:41 mark on an own goal.
WWU sophomore sub Jessica Bertucci made a nice move around a Hilltopper defender to get off a shot that goalie Danielle Licarione was able to save, but Katie Donahue couldn't clear the rebound, and the ball trickled into the net. WWU's Stephanie Hamilton kept the pressure on Donahue on the play.
And that was all Western needed, as the Vikings' defense stayed perfect through three NCAA postseason games this year, and goal keeper Alyssa Beauchamp notched her 10th shutout.
"This team (St. Edward's) was really a physically athletic team - the most athletic team we've had," Connell said. "They pushed us to our limit, and it took many, many players to defend this group. A lot players were asked to make big plays, including our goal keeper, Alyssa; Kayla Russ, our senior center back stepping up time and time again making big plays; Ashton (Griffen), another senior in our midfield winning so many headers. It was a team effort defensively."
Reach David Rasbach at email@example.com or 360-715-2286.
Reach DAVID RASBACH at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2271.