After securing its third straight Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) championship in the abbreviated spring 2021 season, the Loyola women’s soccer team is kicking off its fall season hungry for another.
The Ramblers were voted first place in the MVC Preseason Poll Aug. 17, receiving eight out of nine possible first-place votes, and had four players named to the MVC Preseason First Team. Now with three exhibition games in the books, the team will begin its schedule with eight non-conference matchups before Valley play begins.
Head coach Barry Bimbi said he believes the team has more depth this fall than it did in the spring, which he credits to the underclassmen adjusting more quickly than they did the previous year. He said he’s excited to have players who are now more prepared because it gives the team more options for game day lineups.
Although the team has made it to the first round of the NCAA Tournament in each of the last three years, it’s yet to make it past the first game. Bimbi said the team’s goals have been slightly adjusted this season, now being to advance in the tournament overall instead of to advance to just the second game.
He said the team discussed dropping the last phrase because he felt it was selling them short — if the Ramblers can make the second game, they don’t want to stop there.
The Ramblers hold a 2-1 record so far this season, with one of those wins being a 1-0 victory over Big Ten opponent Northwestern University. They’ll have two more Big Ten matchups before conference play — University of Wisconsin-Madison Sept. 2 and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Sept. 5.
“We kind of had a talk after a pretty successful preseason with the scrimmages and some good results there, we think there’s not a team on our schedule that can beat us,” Bimbi said. “There’s no reason to believe we can’t win every game on our schedule, and that’s kind of our focus going forward.”
Senior goalkeeper Maddie Hausmann said the victory against Northwestern gave the team a lot of confidence for the season ahead, and that players are excited to face off against more difficult teams like Wisconsin and Nebraska.
The fall 2021 season proves to be somewhat of a return to normalcy in terms of scheduling. The fall 2020 season was initially postponed and then abbreviated to include only one exhibition game before conference play in spring 2021.
Bimbi said the short transition between seasons has felt different since the team didn’t get as much of a break as it normally would. He said this made them more focused on injury prevention than usual in the preseason due to players potentially being overtired without their usual recovery period.
However, players like graduate defender Jenna Ross are still excited to play again so soon, especially after having a previous season shortened by COVID-19 precautions. After the NCAA offered fall athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, she decided to play a fifth year with Loyola and said she’s glad to end her career with a full season.
Ross says although the team’s COVID-19 regulations are still in place, they’re less strict about socializing now thanks to Loyola’s vaccination requirement.
“It’s nice to know that everyone we’re hanging out with most likely is vaccinated,” she said. “We definitely get the out-of-soccer experience with all the girls, we’re definitely very tight this year because we have had the opportunity to hang out.”
Ross also isn’t the only player taking a fifth year with the team — forward Katharine Stephens also chose to continue playing with the Ramblers this fall as a graduate student. Bimbi said having them on the team is helpful because of their experience with the program and how they help train and educate younger players.
When it comes to the incoming class, Hausmann said she thinks the six first-years have been great so far because they all have a strong work ethic and positive attitude.
“They’ve really blended seamlessly in our team,” she said. ‘[They’re] all very hard workers and just incredible girls to be around.”
Some of the returning players poised to do well this season according to Bimbi include the four named to the MVC Preseason First Team — sophomore defender Alaina Abel, junior midfielder Megan Nemec, senior midfielder Abby Swanson and senior defender Aly Kilburg. He also highlighted Ross and the impact he believes she’ll carry in her graduate year.
“The leadership she provides to the team, you can’t measure that,” he said. “Her competitive nature and just the way she leads, the group follows her … someone like that is really important to what we want to do as a program.”
Loyola will begin regular season play when the team travels to play Miami University in Oxford, Ohio Aug. 19. Kick-off is scheduled for 3 p.m. CT.