The Loyola women’s soccer team’s non-conference schedule isn’t a smooth road with easy match-ups, and not without reason. Seeing different systems of play from top-ranked teams prepares the players for tougher conference games and the eventual conference tournament, according to head coach Barry Bimbi.
This season alone, the Ramblers have played NCAA-ranked teams including No. 16 University of Wisconsin-Madison, No. 20 University of Kansas and No. 50 University of Illinois. Loyola fell 3-1 to Illinois and 6-0 to Kansas but drew 1-1 against Wisconsin. Last year, the Ramblers played schools such as then-No. 19 University of Notre Dame and then-No. 14 Oklahoma State University, losing to both.
“Playing against high-level teams obviously puts us out of our comfort zone a little bit,” Bimbi said. “You learn a lot about the girls in stressful situations. Can we handle it? Can this player handle playing at this level?”
Coaches have total control over who they play in non-conference and aren’t told they have to play specific teams, according to Assistant Director of Athletic Communications Ryan Haley. He also said coaches may choose to play certain teams every year, such as with Loyola and schools like University of Wisconsin (UW)-Milwaukee.
An email is sent to all Division I head coaches with schools looking for games, to which they will reply with their open dates for scheduling, Bimbi said. Scheduling and recruitment are both done a couple years in advance — the 2020 schedule is already done, along with most of 2021 — so Bimbi scheduled this year knowing they would have a talented team, he said.
“I always try to respond to different places maybe we haven’t been,” Bimbi said. “Kansas is a new place for us. Missouri is a new place for us this year.”
Bimbi said last season proved facing tougher teams early in the season can prepare the team for conference play, saying the players “didn’t flinch” when they were down 2-1 late in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament final against Drake University. The Ramblers came back to win 3-2 and secure an NCAA Tournament bid and they only gave up one goal in the loss to No. 1 seed Florida State University — the eventual champion.
Last year, the Ramblers’ rating percentage index (RPI) — which ranks all 353 Division I teams based on wins, losses and strength of schedule — ranked them 100th overall and 186th in non-conference. The average RPI of their non-conference opponents was 145th, the highest being 23rd for UW-Madison.
Senior midfielder Aleksa Tataryn said although it’s not fun to lose against higher-ranked teams, she likes playing them because it gives the team valuable experience.
“I think it sets us up really well for the conference tournament [and] conference games,” Tataryn said. “To play at a really high level, I think that just sets us up for success.”
Facing these different schools also allows the team to play more teams outside Illinois, Bimbi said. Playing at new venues brings more excitement to the season, he said.
Bimbi said Loyola is lucky because the administration supports making the schedule this way. He added other schools may simply want wins no matter who they play, but Athletics Director Steve Watson understands the bigger picture of playing difficult teams even if they lose those individual games.
Watson said he discussed Bimbi’s schedules and reasoning in one of their first conversations when Watson arrived at Loyola. Watson added since Bimbi knows the team and soccer in general better than he does, Watson has always supported his tough schedules.
“What he’s really done is built a solid program that they can compete at the highest level year in and year out,” Watson said.
Bimbi said he chooses to play UW-Milwaukee in scrimmages every year because of his relationship with UW-Milwaukee’s head coach, Troy Fabiano. The two coaches went head-to-head as players in college, with Bimbi at St. Francis University and Fabiano at Robert Morris University. The Ramblers also play DePaul University each year — one game at Loyola Soccer Park and one at DePaul — and UW-Madison.
Senior defender Madison Laudeman said through the tough match-ups, players have learned they can compete with top-ranked schools. She said last year’s close loss to Notre Dame helped them realize their capabilities and fuel them toward improvement.
“I think that’s one thing that we all take into playing teams that are maybe higher ranked than us,” Laudeman said. “We have the ability, and it’s only going to make us better.”
The Ramblers are set to play DePaul Sept. 12 at Loyola Soccer Park. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on ESPN+.