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Fall sports: Women's soccer

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We continue our series on fall sports besides football to take a look at women’s soccer this week.

Sometimes, when I do research for this series, I come across interesting stuff on the interwebs about our players, coaches and programs. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s inspiring, sometimes it’s just some interesting trivia. For example, you may have seen this recent ESPN.com piece on Natalie Lagunas, a sophomore reserve on the NU women's soccer team.

Today’s research, though, brought me something sad. I didn’t know much about NU’s women’s soccer program, other than a few years ago, there was some freshman hazing scandal and some unflattering photos that got posted on the Internet, which eventually led to the head coach resigning.

I was curious about what happened to that coach, since I remember she was pretty young and promising, and in the process of googling her, I learned that she has since been diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer and has spent much of the last two and a half years in and out of hospitals. My best wishes to Jenny Haigh, her family and her friends.

This year’s Wildcat team is off to a rough 1-7 start so far, which is somewhat to be expected in this rebuilding year, as NU has five freshmen and three sophomores regularly in the starting lineup. Hit the jump for a closer look at the team.

How’s the team doing so far? A 3-1 loss at Nebraska in the team’s Big Ten opener on Sunday dropped the team to 1-7. The silver lining in that record is that three of those losses have been in OT, including the season opener at No. 12 Marquette. Another OT loss came to Dayton, which is now ranked No. 18 in the polls. The Wildcats have generally been competitive in most of their matches, except for a 6-0 blowout at the hands of No. 1 Stanford.

NU next faces Penn State on the road Friday.

How does the sport work? All 12 Big Ten schools have women’s soccer, and this year, the conference will hold a postseason tournament for the first time since 2008, with the top eight teams qualifying. In fact, NU will host that tournament at Lakeside Field in November, the winner of which will get the Big Ten’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. There are 64 teams in the single-elimination NCAA tournament. The College Cup this year will be held in Kennesaw, Georgia.

North Carolina is the undisputed powerhouse in the sport, having won 20 national titles. Nobody comes even remotely close; Notre Dame is second with three championships, including last year’s. Other strong programs are Santa Clara, Portland and UCLA. The Big Ten is not particularly known for women’s soccer. Wisconsin was runner up in 1991, but that’s as close as the conference has come to a title. In the most recent NCSAA poll, Illinois is the only Big Ten team ranked, coming in at No. 22.

How did they do last year?  6-10-3 overall, 2-7-1 in Big Ten play. Needless to say, the team did not qualify for the postseason. The year began promisingly, though. The Wildcats beat No. 3 UCLA, 1-0, in their third game of the year, and the 2-0-1 record got NU ranked No. 14 by Soccer America, the first time the program had been ranked since 1998. That was pretty much the high point of the season, as the wheels came off soon after. Following the season, defender Leigh Lakes turned pro, with the now-defunct Chicago Red Stars of Women’s Professional Soccer.

What’s the historical context? NU’s women’s soccer program has been around since 1994, and for the most part, it’s been a pretty unremarkable history. Most years, the Wildcats are solidly middle of the pack in the Big Ten, never quite excelling, but not being absolutely abysmal, either. The Wildcats have made the NCAA tournament twice: the first time in 1996, when they lost in the first round, and then again in 1998, when they made it all the way to the quarterfinals. Since then, NU has managed just two other winning seasons, mostly finishing within a few games of .500, though the last couple of years has seen a bit of a troubling slide.

What’s the outlook this year? As I said in the intro, the Wildcats look to be rebuilding this year, with a lot of youth in the lineup. Their 1-7 record so far speaks for itself, and NU looks like it will struggle to avoid the ignominy of being the Big Ten tournament host while failing to qualify for it.

Offensively, the Wildcats are led by forward Kate Allen, a sophomore who was an All-Big Ten Freshman Team selection and was the team’s leading scorer last year. She’s off to a great start with four goals so far. Senior forward Emily Langston joins Allen up top and has chipped in two goals.

The midfield features a trio of freshmen: Sami Schrakamp has been a playmaker with three assists on the season, and Georgia Waddle and Niki Sebo are also playing heavy minutes. Senior Jill Dunn provides a steady presence, and sophomore Julie Sierks rounds out the midfield.

The defense is retooling but returns junior Briana Westlund to lead the charge at center back. Senior Alison Schneeman, sophomore Nicole Jewell and freshman Jackie Alyinovich are the other starters on defense. In goal, freshman Anna Cassell has taken over for three-year starter Carolyn Edwards, now graduated.

The team looks to be a little thin on offense, and the defense has been a bit leaky, as well. All that adds up to a team that will likely have a tough go this year. The Wildcats have completed the non-conference portion of their schedule, so now they’ll have to take care of business if they want to qualify for the Big Ten tournament.

Who are the coaches? Head coach Stephanie Foster, nee Erickson, is a 1998 NU alum, who was the program’s all-time leader in goals and points when she graduated. (She’s since been passed up by 2007 graduate Kelly Hans.) She was named head coach in 2006 after Jenny Haigh resigned in the wake of the hazing incident. Foster began her coaching career at Cal in 1998, then served as an assistant at Harvard in 1999, before taking another assistant coaching position with Stanford through 2003. She came back to NU as an assistant in 2004, then was head coach of Harvard for the 2005 season, before taking the reins at NU.

Katie Shields, a 2006 Harvard grad, is in her second year as NU’s goalkeeper coach, while former MLS player Bayard Elfvin is in his first year as an assistant coach.