On a rainy Sunday afternoon, the Loyola women’s soccer team made history and won its first Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Tournament, which sealed its trip to the NCAA Tournament.
While it’s not Loyola’s first conference championship — the Ramblers won the Horizon League title in 2003, 2006 and 2007 — it’s head coach Barry Bimbi’s first conference win in his eight-year tenure. Bimbi said it’s been an ongoing fight for him and the seniors on the team to get this far for the past four years.
The Ramblers have had multiple chances the last three years to go to the NCAA Tournament. In 2015, the team lost the championship game in penalty kicks. In 2016, they again lost in the semifinal during penalty kicks. Last season, Loyola again made it to the semifinals but couldn’t get to that final game.
This year, Bimbi and the Ramblers finally saw their dreams come to fruition. Senior defender Taylor Lambouris said it’s been great for her and the rest of the seniors.
“Coming from my [first] year when we lost in [penalty kicks], it’s finally paying off,” Lambouris said. “All the hard work. Being a senior, it’s our last hurrah so let’s go out there and win. It’s definitely great just seeing it finally happen.”
It wasn’t an easy tournament for the Ramblers. Both games Loyola played were hard fought. In the semifinal round, they played Illinois State — the only MVC team Loyola had lost to all season — and won 2-1. Despite the victory, Loyola also suffered a loss — first-year defender Aly Kilburg suffered a knee injury and won’t be able to play in the NCAA Tournament.
The championship game against Drake was a “wild” game, according to Bimbi. It was a back-and-forth game and, despite many scoring chances, the Ramblers couldn’t seem to catch a break and found themselves down 2-1 early in the second half.
The Ramblers were able to pull out a win and beat the Bulldogs 3-2 with goals from first-year midfielder Abby Swanson and sophomore Katharine Stephens. Bimbi said despite the game being a nailbiter, he never doubted the players’ ability to complete the comeback.
“As a coach, it’s great, but it’s all about the players,” Bimbi said. “We always said there is no finish line, Porter [Moser] and the [men’s basketball team] said that mantra in the spring and we’re continuing it and hopefully other teams at Loyola will follow that.”
Men’s basketball coach Porter Moser came and talked to the team Oct. 30 to give the players a pep talk. Bimbi had his own question for Moser during his visit.
“‘When did you know your team was good?,’” Bimbi said. “His answer was when Clayton [Custer] got injured in the Florida game. We brought it up this morning and it’s like ‘We’re good.’ [Kilburg] got hurt on Friday night, next person up [to]fill her gap and we get the job done and that’s what we did.”
Bimbi praised the resiliency of the team throughout the year. Junior defender Madison Laudeman said she knows she can count on other players to step up — in this instance — sophomore defender Gopika Patel.
“That’s one thing about our team is that we do have a lot of depth, so when someone falls, we have someone else to take their spot,” Laudeman said.
Bimbi said the team had three goals this season: Win the regular season conference title and win the MVC Tournament, he won’t yet reveal the third goal. Now that the Ramblers have checked off goals one and two, they’re headed to the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Laudeman said. “You come in and you work hard all summer and these seniors have been working all four years and this was the moment you always wanted when you come into play college soccer.”
The team plays Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida Nov. 9 at 6 p.m. Florida State is one of the No. 1 seeds in the tournament. The Seminoles are 14-4-2 with notable wins against No. 2 University of California, Los Angeles and No. 3 University of Virginia.
“Sounds like a challenge, but a challenge we’re up for,” Laudeman said. “We’ve had a good season so far and we’ve played some hard teams.”
The Ramblers had a tough non-conference season to prepare for the possibility of an NCAA tournament. Despite not beating a ranked team all season, senior forward Madison Kimball is still optimistic.
“I think we could win, if we play our game,” Kimball said. “If the soccer gods are on our side.”