Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
The misquote of legendary college football coach Bear Bryant’s “Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships” saying seems to often ring true regardless of the sport.
But it may be the opposite for Western Washington University’s women’s soccer team. The Vikings relied on the 9th-ranked defense by goals against average to advance to last year’s NCAA Division II semifinal, and this season have relied on a defense that is second in the nation in goals against average.
With such an unrelenting defense, WWU could survive with an offense that does just enough, but with the forward combination of Catherine Miles and Jessica Bertucci, the team could be a national title contender.
Miles was key in last season’s tournament run, leading the Vikings with 15 goals on the season. But Bertucci was hampered by injury throughout the season, and only played in 17 of the team’s 23 games. She also suffered a major injury the previous season, her freshman year, that cut her year short at just five games.
“She’s a very physical, athletic player, so sometimes that happens,” WWU coach Travis Connell said in a phone interview. “She had a torn ACL her freshman year, and sophomore year she battled at least two high ankle sprains. She played through them, but missed a few games because of it.”
This season, Bertucci is finally at 100 percent and making up for lost time. As of Oct. 10, she has three goals this season, second-most on the team.
“She’s always been a passionate player, but I think she feels like she missed two years, so she plays that way,” Connell said. “She plays like it was taken from her.”
Bertucci used the recovery time she had off the field to add a new dimension to her game. She spent the time she would have been practicing in the weight room, and has increased her strength because of it.
Before the injuries, Bertucci was a speed forward who could outrun defenders. Now she can post up defenders and hold them off while making plays with her back to the goal, Connell said.
“She’s added this strength, and she’s still explosive off the dribble and she can playmake,” Connell said.
Bertucci is also aided by the opposite forward, Miles. The duo grew up playing on the same club team, and playing against each other in high school when Miles was at Anacortes and Bertucci was at Sehome.
“Jess is good at taking people on and holding the ball,” Miles said in a phone interview. “It’s easy for me to read her.”
When Bertucci holds the ball in the middle, Miles can make speedy outside and diagonal runs to either beat or distract the defense.
“The best thing the other players can do to help Jess is keep moving,” Connell said. “Sometimes she takes one touch, and sometimes she takes 10. Miles is an endless worker, so that is best to place her with Jess because she will eventually find Miles.”
Last year when Bertucci was on and off the field with injuries, Miles would play in the forward combination with Kristin Maris. The dynamic is different with Bertucci because of both her playing style and their familiarity.
“The difference is that Catherine and Jess have played with each other for a long time,” he said. “They have this uncanny knowledge of where the other one is at and what they are thinking. They have some beautiful combination play because of that.”
Because she holds the ball so well and can hold off defenders, Bertucci has the liberty to make plays as she sees them developing. Connell has given her the freedom to create plays up front because of the development he has seen from her.
“She’s our most creative playmaker,” he said. “She basically has the green light to create, to do the unexpected. She does the wrong thing in the right situation because the defenses don’t expect it.”
Her breakout season hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Vikings’ opponents, however. Teams have been keying in on Bertucci, and even double- or triple-teaming her in some instances.
Somehow she still has found a way to get free of defenders for a team-high 38 shots and 20 shots on goal.
“She does get a lot of attention,” Connell said. “I’m sure she’s part of every scout every team has on us. She can create her own goals, but she also helps us in possession.”
Bertucci has helped the Vikings to a 9-0-2 record overall and a No. 19 ranking in the national poll. Though the team may be regarded as a defensive juggernaut, her impact on the offensive side has certainly been felt.