Penalty kicks are always a rough way to lose a tightly contested soccer game. But they are a heartbreaking way to end a season, especially a season that saw much progress despite the added pressure caused by the conference change.
Unfortunately, the Lady Ramblers lost 2-4 to Drake in a penalty shootout, which eliminated them from the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and sent them into the offseason. The team’s final season record ending up being 6-8-6, which was one fewer loss than last year.
Head Coach Barry Bimbi believes the losing record doesn’t completely represent the women’s performance this season.
“Winning and losing, it’s such a fine line,” Bimbi said. “Right now, the girls, they battled and they’re doing everything we’re asking.”
Bimbi wanted the team to get tougher mentally and he believes they did so.
“We’re not giving away those easy wins,” Bimbi said. “You battle, maybe you’re not the better team on a day, but you battle and you got a tie out of it.”
The Ramblers had to battle a tough early-season schedule as well, playing two Big 10 teams, Indiana University and Wisconsin University. They also faced Colorado College, which had the 19th hardest schedule in women’s Division I soccer and finished with a 15-4-2 record.
Despite not winning any of those games, junior goalkeeper Monica Gonyo, thought they were a learning experience.
“We played some good teams and I think that helped us for our conference play,” Gonyo said.
Leaving the Horizon League for the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) and having to compete against a whole new set of schools was another reason the team didn’t believe the final record was an indication of their overall performance.
The Ramblers were picked to finish seventh, last in the conference, in the MVC preseason poll. After beating University of Northern Iowa and University of Evansville to close out the regular season, the women finished third and earned home field advantage in the first round of the conference tournament.
Tricia Stonebraker, a senior midfielder, attributed the late season success to a formation change from a traditional 4-4-3 to what she called “basically a 4-5-1.”
“It definitely made us attack through the middle more and then got more people involved,” Stonebraker said. “Being able to get our attack going helped us in the offensive part [of the field], which is where we’ve always struggled … scoring goals.”
Although the tactical change did help the offense run more smoothly, Bimbi said that it was the alteration itself that got the Ramblers out of the rut they were in. It had been nearly a month since the team had won a match when they beat Northern Iowa on Oct. 26.
“When you change things, it refocuses them,” Bimbi said. “So we got them out of their comfort zone a little bit.”
Gonyo just wished they had switched the formation sooner.
“If we could’ve [changed the formation] earlier, we could’ve improved our record,” she said.
The strong finish to the regular season due to the formation change made the loss to Drake University in the first round even harder.
“It was disappointing because I thought it was actually the best game we’d played all year and then we lost in penalty kicks,” Bimbi said.
However tough it was for the team, it was even harder for Stonebraker as it was her last game as a Rambler, as well as the last for three other seniors. But as Gonyo put it, “[Stonebraker] went out with a bang.”
Stonebraker racked up the accolades in her final season. She was named to the First Team All-Missouri Valley Conference after scoring three goals and assisting on five more.
“I finally picked up everything they told me the past couple years,” Stonebraker said. “It all came together. It was a good way to end my last year.”
“Defensively she understood what was going on, and then I think she had her best offensive season,” Bimbi said. “I’m proud of the way she developed as a player.”
Stonebraker also won the Leadership and Service Award, which honors the achievements of the MVC’s top student athletes. And finally, last week, she was named to the MVC’s Women’s Soccer Scholar Athlete Team.
With the awards still coming in and because she’s still hanging out with her teammates, Stonebraker doesn’t feel like her collegiate career is over yet.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” Stonebraker said. “I think it’ll be once they start practicing every day in the spring.”
Bimbi is already looking to next season and the team’s younger players.
“A lot of underclassmen got tons of experience this year,” Bimbi said. “We have a huge group of seniors next year. … The future’s bright.”
One those upperclassmen who will be coming back is Gonyo. The goalkeeper led the Valley in shutouts, with six, and saves, with 102. She will return as the leader of the Ramblers’ defense.
Forward Sammy Gage, returning next year as a senior, will look to be the team’s top scorer again next season after leading the Ramblers with four goals this season.
With high expectations in mind, Bimbi believes the women’s soccer team is primed to take that next step forward.
“With the changing of the league, with the success we had, I think it’s ingrained in the girls’ heads now that no matter what league we’re in, we’re building this program to compete, to win a championship and, hopefully, someday in the near future, to get into the NCAA tournament.”