It was a long wait for Northwestern (10-4-4) on Monday night, but the Wildcats are headed to North Carolina on Friday to play NC State in the first round of the NCAA women’s soccer tournament.
The Wildcats, who haven’t played soccer since since October 21st, hadn’t seen their name drawn yet as the final region of the bracket was being announced. But despite not reaching their own conference tournament, a strong non-conference slate and some mitigating factors led the NCAA Tournament Committee to pluck Northwestern from off the bubble and into the field.
A celebration for the ages commenced:
The season started off strong for Northwestern, who initially looked like a shoo-in for a program-record fourth straight tournament appearance. A draw with No, 2 seed West Virginia was the most impressive result during a program-record 668 minute, 42 second scoreless streak that resulted in an undefeated non-conference slate. But after the regular season high-water mark came with a 1-0 win over a Penn State team that had their number last year, things began to fall apart.
Nikia Smith, who missed all of last season with an injury, had been making a huge impact in her senior season before going down against Minnesota early in Big Ten play. The ‘Cats lost that game, and ended up going 3-4-1 in games that Smith failed to start or finish. They were 7-0-3 in all other games. Those four losses included heartbreakers against fellow tournament teams Ohio State and Rutgers, both overtime losses that ended on relatively fluky goals against the run of play. Then, the Wildcats suffered their worst loss of the season against a hapless Maryland team.
Just when it seemed things couldn’t get much worse, senior midfielder and offensive focal point Marisa Viggiano missed games against Indiana and Purdue. In the end, thanks to injuries and inconsistent play, the Wildcats struggled to a 4-4-3 conference mark. A draw with Iowa to close out the season coupled with Nebraska’s win over Michigan State officially held Northwestern out of the eight team conference tournament, and NU was forced to play the waiting game.
But thanks to high-end results including the win over Penn State and draw with West Virginia, Northwestern’s resume was impressive enough to get them off the bubble. After a two-plus week hiatus, the Wildcats, fully rested up and healthy, will travel to NC State on Friday to continue their season against the Wolfpack. The winner will probably take on third-seeded Santa Clara.
For Northwestern, the tournament berth means a continuation of the careers of the most impressive senior class in program history. Led by Viggiano, Smith, leading goal-scorer and all-time program leader in go-ahead goals Brenna Lovera, and center back duo Kayla Sharples and Hannah Davison, this group has taken coach Michael Moynihan and the Wildcats to the second round for three consecutive years. After notching a share of the Big Ten regular season title in 2016, reaching the Big Ten Championship last year, and setting program records with four straight tournament appearances, Northwestern and its seniors are ready to make more history.