Following a series of tough non-conference losses, the Loyola women’s soccer team (3-5-1) is hoping regular conference play will change the pace.
The Ramblers had five losses in a seven game span during the preseason. They played against difficult teams — No. 14/13 Oklahoma State University and No. 14/19 University of Notre Dame — which taught the Ramblers some tough lessons and forced them to prepare for what’s to come in conference play.
But head coach Barry Bimbi said Loyola’s lack of wins allowed the players to learn a lot about themselves.
“I think our girls have gotten better every game,” Bimbi said. “I think we are learning what to do [and] what not to do in crucial moments of the game. Battling through, having good scoring opportunity those girls are learning when we create good moments on the attacking third, we have to capitalize on it.”
Bimbi said he thinks the team has been playing well and will see more success once regular conference play begins.
“[The team has learned] that we’re quite good. They believe in what we’re doing,” Bimbi said. “That we’re not happy losing close games to ranked teams. They truly believe that we’re good enough to beat those teams. Just the confidence and the level that we are playing at right now can continue through conference play.”
None of the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) teams are ranked, so the upcoming conference games should be easier, Bimbi said, adding he doesn’t want his players to let their guard down.
“The challenge going forward is that the girls don’t take a deep breath and say ‘Okay, the games are easy now,’” Bimbi said. “Can we sustain the level we’ve been playing at? Because it’s been a very high level.”
According to Bimbi, the MVC features many perennial contenders including Drake University, Illinois State University (ISU) and MVC 2017 tournament winner Missouri State University. Drake won the MVC regular season title in 2017 and ISU has won multiple MVC titles — the most recent being in 2016. Bimbi said playing ranked teams gave the players the confidence and skills to do well.
“I think we are the most athletic team in the conference,” Bimbi said. “The more we can pull teams out by scoring early goals, I think that’ll be beneficial to us.”
Senior defender Taylor Lambouris said she was most nervous for Missouri State because of Loyola’s performance against the Bears last year. Loyola won during the regular season, but fell 1-0 Nov. 3 during the MVC tournament.
Lambouris said she was grateful a majority of their challenging games are played at Hoyne Field. Lambouris said playing at home gives them an advantage of having someone to play for other than themselves.
“A lot of our tough opponents are home games,” Lambouris said. “If we can get a good crowd out, that helps a lot. It helps that my family comes to home games because I try and play well for them.”
First-year midfielder Aly Kilburg had a different challenging opponent in mind. While Missouri State won the MVC tournament, Kilburg said she’s more eager to play Drake.
“Knowing that Drake last year was at the top for most of the rankings, it would be nice to push them out of that spot and take it over.” Kilburg said.
The Ramblers have one goal on their list: Win the MVC. As achievable as the goal is, Lambouris said the players will have to work hard to get there.
“As a team we want to win [the MVC regular season], because we’re coming in as the favorite,” Lambouris said. “I know coming in we aren’t doing well right now, but as long as we keep that mentality we will be fine.”
They aren’t the only ones who think they can win. Loyola was voted the MVC preseason favorite. Rather than letting the pressure get to them, Kilburg said the players have turned it into motivation to work harder and live up to the prediction.
“It’s a very competitive conference,” Kilburg said. “But as we are predicted to be number one in the conference, I think that sets a tone right away. It shows that we can be the team to beat this year.”
Bimbi said he’s confident in this team’s ability to go far in the postseason. He said this team has a spirit unlike others he’s seen while coaching at Loyola.
“We think we have a group here that is good enough to win an NCAA tournament game — which the Loyola women’s soccer team has never done,” Bimbi said. “So, writing our own history as a program is in the future for this team. They’re in a good place right now.”
The Ramblers are schedule to kick off their conference schedule against University of Northern Iowa Sept. 23 at 1 p.m.