Loyola’s women’s soccer team had its Cinderella storybook season come to an end in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) tournament championship, but it was no fairytale ending. With a bid to nationals on the line, the Ramblers fought a tightly contested game against the University of Evansville, which ended in penalty kicks, and Loyola fell 5-3.
The Ramblers had a tough road to get to the MVC championship on Nov. 8. Fifth seed Loyola took on the regular season MVC winner Drake University on Nov. 6. In their previous meeting, the Ramblers tied the Bulldogs 0-0 and Loyola was one of only two teams to gain a positive result against Drake.
Loyola took an early 1-0 lead, only to have it erased several minutes later. With the game coming to a close, junior Ciara Murray scored her first collegiate goal to secure the Ramblers’ spot in the MVC tournament final.
Junior Abby Burridge said beating Drake was an accomplishment, but the Ramblers’ mindset shifted to the MVC championship game.
“We celebrated our win against Drake; it was really big for us. And then we had a quick turnaround that night to prepare for Evansville,” said Burridge. “We really worked hard on recovery that night and got back into practice the next day.”
Momentum and pride carried the team into the game against the Purple Aces, but it was matched by the efforts of Evansville, who hosted the tournament.
The Purple Aces outshot the Ramblers 22 shots to 11, but the Ramblers had the same amount of shots on target as Evansville, finishing at three. There were also three saves for each goalkeeper. The Purple Aces had several shots wide and some that rolled into the arms of sophomore goalkeeper Maddie Ford, who broke the single-season shutout record for women’s soccer with nine.
The focus on the game against Evansville was aggressiveness, which was accomplished by the Ramblers, but fouls became a problem. Although no cards were shown, Loyola gathered 16 fouls, compared to Evansville’s seven.
First-year Taylor Lambouris said the team wanted to demonstrate its competitive drive.
“We wanted to be physical and show them we wanted to play,” said Lambouris, who was called for several fouls in the game. “We wanted to make sure they knew even though we were the fifth seed, we weren’t just going to lay down for them. We took them to the end of the game. We never let up, and that’s what got us as far as it did.”
The penalty shootout didn’t end in Loyola’s favor, as Evansville had six shots in the 10-minute mark of play. Loyola gained none in that time frame, but it managed to get three shots in the first period of extra time. However, Ford only saved two of those shots.
With nearly 500 people in attendance, the Purple Aces and the Ramblers made the game one to remember. Although Evansville had superior talent, Loyola kept up with the Purple Aces until the second penalty, which senior Mariah Vichich missed. Evansville capitalized and went five for five to finish the game, becoming the 2015 MVC tournament champions and getting the bid to NCAA nationals.
The Ramblers didn’t get the ending they wanted, but Vichich, Murray and Jenna Szczesny were honored by making the all-tournament team.
Szczesny also earned this year’s MVC Freshman of the Year accolade. She’s the first Loyola soccer player to win this league’s honor. She started in all but one game for the Ramblers this season, and ranked in the MVC top 10 for shots, assists, points and goals. Szczesny is one of just five MVC players to record at least four goals and four assists this season, and she’s the only first-year player in the MVC to accomplish that milestone.
Another award found its way to Loyola. Lambouris was selected to the MVC all-freshman team and also received honorable mention in the all-conference teams.
The Ramblers had a mediocre season according to their record, finishing at 9-7-5, but they managed to pull off several key wins to get to the championship. The team will lose only five seniors next season and could possibly pull a strong recruiting class for 2016. With a hard training offseason, head coach Barry Bimbi said Loyola’s women’s soccer team could be a force to be reckoned with for the next several years.
“We’re going to continue to work on the team culture,” said Bimbi. “The culture really carried this team down the stretch. It was a group that trusted each other and carried one another to new heights. By the end, they were 24 friends on a soccer field. If we can keep that culture going, we should continue to grow as a team.”