Three regional college soccer teams seized the moment last weekend, with the promise of more big moments just within their grasp.
• For Eastern Washington, it was another big road win that clinched the program’s first postseason berth in five years.
• For Washington State, it was a sweep of road matches to set up one of the biggest home matches in program history this weeked in Pullman.
• And for the Whitworth men, it was the reward of working overtime – twice in a row – to put the Pirates back in the hunt for a conference title.
Eastern Washington: Expectations were as low as it gets this year for the Eagles, who were coming off a last-place finish in the Big Sky Conference while being led by a new coach whose main experience had come at the junior college level.
Instead, the Eagles are probably the biggest surprise of any collegiate team – men’s or women’s – in the Inland Northwest. Picked to finish 10th among 11 teams in the Big Sky, they’re guaranteed a berth in the six-team conference tournament with one match left.
It could get better: With a win in their regular-season finale on Friday against first-place Montana, the Eagles could finish as high as second. At worst, they’ll finish sixth – a major achievement after scoring just four goals last year in nine conference matches.
After a postseason-clinching 1-0 win Sunday at North Dakota, senior goalkeeper Nathalie Schwery and her teammates “were so excited that we were running in the hallway, celebrating.”
For Schwery and seven other seniors, the celebration marked the Eagles’ first postseason berth since 2009. They’re 8-7 overall and 5-4 in the league thanks partly due to an infusion of young talent up front, but mostly because of a culture change under first-year coach Chad Bodnar.
“I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I had a lot of confidence that we could turn things around and change that culture a little bit,” said Bodnar, who went 210-15-11 in 10 years at Walla Walla Community College.
In their first match, an exhibition against Gonzaga back in August, Bodnar was less concerned about the 5-1 loss than “throwing kids into the fire and seeing how they’d respond.”
Results came quickly: an overtime loss at Fresno State and shutout wins over CS Bakersfield (3-0) and Idaho (4-0). Two of those young kids – both from Spokane – wound up sparking the offense: Chloe Williams (Lewis and Clark) has scored six goals and Savannah Hoekstra (Central Valley) five.
“I loved Eastern and wanted to stay close to home, so this was a perfect fit for me,” said Hoekstra, who helped CV win a State 4A title last fall.
After tying a single-game scoring record in a 5-1 win at Weber State, the goals came less easily, and the Eagles relied on Schwery and the defense; they’ve conceded just three goals while going 4-2 in their last six matches.
“In some of the games, you could tell people were working hard, and jumping in front of shots,” Schwery said.
Regardless of how Friday’s match turns out, the conference tournament will be held next week at Montana. No problem – the Eagles are 6-3 on the road.
“We’ve shown a lot of character to fight through on the road and get results,” said Bodnar.
Regardless of expectations.
“This was a fantastic weekend for Washington State soccer,” coach Steve Nugent said after the 24th-ranked Cougars defeated Utah 4-2 to cap a Rocky Mountain sweep. Four WSU players scored in the first half against the Utes. Two days earlier, the Cougars came from behind on a second-half goal from Kaitlyn Johnson to win 2-1 at Colorado. “This is a very difficult road trip and for us to come away with six points says great things about the type of soccer we are playing right now. I thought our offense executed at a high level in these two matches,” Nugent said. The Cougars (10-2-3 overall, 5-2-1 Pac-12) are not only closing in on their sixth NCAA tournament berth in seven years, they’ll play their last three regular-season matches at home. The homestand begins Friday against No. 1 UCLA.
The Pirates moved into second place in the Northwest Conference with their second straight victory Sunday, a come-from-behind 2-1 win over George Fox. Samual Jarrett did the honors two minutes into overtime for Whitworth (13-1-2 overall, 8-1-2 NWC), which sits two points back of first-place Willamette. The teams meet Saturday in Salem, Oregon. On Saturday, Micheal Ramos broke a scoreless tie with a free-kick in the 113th minute to give the Pirates a 1-0 win over Pacific.
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