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Northwestern women’s soccer 2019 preview

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After an incredible four-year stretch, the Wildcats are rebuilding, but have plenty of talent with which to do so.

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After a 2018 season marked by double-digit wins, a fourth consecutive NCAA appearance and a landmark senior class, Northwestern women’s soccer enters 2019 with young talent prepared to get its revenge in the Big Ten.

The Wildcats finished last season with a 10-5-4 overall record and a 4-4-3 record in the Big Ten. While barely missing out on the Big Ten tournament (which takes the top eight teams from conference play), they qualified for the NCAA Tournament, where their season abruptly ended after a 1-0 loss to NC State in the first round.

This year, the Wildcats are tasked with filling the gaps left by a prominent senior class. Of the 10 graduated players, three chose to continue their soccer careers and were drafted to the NWSL. Marisa Viggiano, Hannah Davison and Kayla Sharples were all crucial members of Northwestern’s impressive defense the last four years and will continue to show their talents in the pros. Over the course of their collegiate careers, the Wildcats recorded 47 shutouts and racked up four of the top five shutout streaks in program history.

The memorable senior class was also a major producer for the Wildcats offensively. Northwestern’s top three goal scorers graduated last June, including Brenna Lovera, who led the team with 8 goals, 3 assists and 19 points in 2018 and finished her time at NU as the all-time program leader in game-winning goals. Junior Nia Harris is the top returning scorer this season, finishing 2018 with 2 goals.

With 10 seniors departing (including six starters), the Wildcats welcome 10 new first-years as well as a lot of young returning talent. Three players were named to the Big Ten preseason honor list: junior Regan Steigleder and sophomores Julietta Thron and Mackenzie Wood.

Steigleder started 16 games in her 2018 campaign and finished with 1 goal and 1 assist. Thron had a breakout freshman season, starting in 16 of the 17 games she appeared in, charting 3 assists and earning Big Ten Defensive player of the week honors after not allowing a goal in over 600 minutes––the second longest streak in program history.

Finally, sophomore goal keeper Mackenzie Wood will play a major role in 2019 after an impressive freshman season. Wood started all 19 games as a freshman and recorded 76 saves. She was named the team’s most valuable player, led the Big Ten with a .650 goals against average, ranked third in the Big Ten with a .854 save percentage and recorded eight shutouts. Still early in her career, the Wildcats need Wood to step up again as a sophomore to fill the defensive void left by last year’s seniors.

In addition to their significant, decorated class of first years, the Wildcats will return sophomores Francesca Docters and Olivia Stone (who seems especially primed for a breakout year as a highly-touted forward), both of whom missed their freshman seasons due to injury.

The team also welcomes graduate students Olivia Korhonen and Taylor Hallmon. Korhonen is a four-year Wildcat who made 32 appearances in her career but missed her senior season and will be returning for a fifth year in Evanston. Hallmon transferred from reigning national champions Florida State, and should provide some stability to a young and inexperienced back line. She appeared in over 40 games and won two conference titles and a national championship in her career. The grad-transfers are the only players entering their final year in Evanston, as the team has no seniors (!) this season.

The Wildcats have a manageable schedule ahead of them, facing only two currently-ranked opponents: No. 6 Penn State and No. 16 Wisconsin. Last season, the Wildcats defeated the Nittany Lions 1-0 and tied the Badgers 1-1. The stability is certainly welcome for a team in an early stage of development. While many games on the schedule are winnable, head coach Michael Moynihan (in the 8th year of an impressive coaching run) and his team face challenges in redefining the team dynamic after cycling out and welcoming in so many new players.

The key to 2019 is starting the season off hot and maintaining a strong home record. Northwestern has a recent history of success early in the season, finishing last year’s nonconference schedule with a 6-0-1 record and completing eight games before a loss. The Wildcats have also shown success in defending their home field, with a 23-3-5 record at Martin Stadium over the past three years and a 6-1-1 mark posted there in 2018.

Northwestern kicks off its season today at 7:00 p.m. CST, hosting SMU. The Wildcats will then travel to South Bend for a matchup with Notre Dame on Sunday.