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Women’s soccer: Spellbinding run comes to an end in Los Angeles

Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.

@NUWSoccer on Twitter

Prior to the season, I went to my good friend Doctor Strange and asked to borrow his Time Stone. I used it to analyze 14,000,605 possible outcomes for this women’s soccer season, and I found only one where I wasn’t writing this article. The fact that you are reading this means that, lamentably, that outcome did not occur and that the Wildcats lost in the NCAA tournament.

Before breaking that down, however, there is still one more victory to cover, so let’s skirt death for a little longer and recap that first.

Nov. 18 vs. Vanderbilt

Thanks to the way the tournament seeding broke down, Northwestern swapped the Evanston wind and cold for sunny Los Angeles skies. The ‘Cats would not be taking on one-seed UCLA though (at least not yet). First, they would have to vanquish the Vanderbilt Commodores.

This matchup proved to be a defensive-minded one, with Northwestern struggling to crack a Vanderbilt backline that featured two All-SEC players in Maya Antoine and Ella Shamburger. Despite this, it was the Wildcats who came out on top 2-1.

Northwestern dominated possession from the get go, forcing Vanderbilt to play on the back foot. The Commodores were more than up to the task, and Coach Moynihan’s squad couldn’t seem to find that key final pass. The ‘Cats had a few chances but couldn’t execute, leading to things being knotted up at nil-nil at the break.

But Jason, didn’t you say that there was one more victory to cover? This doesn’t look too hopeful...

Ye of little faith! Do you not trust in this team after all it’s shown this season? Just keep reading.

Hopefully a goal from Josie Aulicino will silence your insolence. About halfway into the 54th minute, an Ingrid Falls cross dropped precipitously into the Vanderbilt box. A lucky bounce meant it dropped at the feet of Aulicino, who was immediately one-on-one with the goalie. I am not a betting man, but if I were, I would never in a million years bet against Aulicino scoring in this spot. She emphatically proved my point as well, rocketing the ball into the back corner of the net to put the ‘Cats up 1-0. Vanderbilt almost equalized shortly after, but its apparent goal was wiped off the board for offsides.

Aulicino almost scored again about 27 minutes later, but a stellar kick-save by Vanderbilt’s Sara Wojdelko deflected the ball directly to super-sub Bridget Mitchell. Mitchell easily slotted it home, and there was no better time for the first goal of her career than in the NCAA Tournament.

Mitchell’s goal would prove to be especially important as insurance for the ‘Cats. Two minutes after the Lake Forest native scored her goal, Vanderbilt was awarded a penalty kick after a Northwestern foul in the box. Shamburger converted, making it 2-1 Wildcats. The next seven minutes and 48 seconds would prove to be the ultimate sweat, but the defense held fast to prevent a Commodore equalizer. After what seemed like forever, the referee’s whistle finally blew, and the ‘Cats were off to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2016.

This win was the 16th of the season for Northwestern, tying a program record. But there was no time to savor this feat, for a Sweet 16 matchup with UCLA awaited.

Nov. 20 vs. UCLA

The Wildcats had one day to recuperate before taking on the juggernaut that was UCLA. Besides just facing off against arguably the best team in the nation, Northwestern would be taking on the Bruins in their home stadium. UCLA was undefeated at home before this matchup, and, much to the dismay of many, it would remain undefeated at home after this matchup.

UCLA started off hot, with All-Pac-12 first-teamer Reilyn Turner capitalizing on a Northwestern defensive miscue for her 10th goal of the season. Not long after the Bruins goal, defensive stalwart Rowan Lapi went down with an injury, forcing some defensive changes from Coach Moynihan. One of these changes included the return of Emma Phillips, albeit for a short stint. The Wildcats continued to respond well, putting together some promising attacks, but again, the last pass was never there. Northwestern would remain down 1-0 at the half, with only 45 minutes left to save its season.

Sadly for the ‘Cats, the Bruins had other plans, and Quincy McMahon (another All-Pac-12 first-teamer) scored in the 65th minute. This 2-0 lead would prove to be insurmountable, especially when the Wildcats’ own all-conference first-teamer Meg Boade subbed out with an injury. The final whistle sounded, and just like that, the magical season was over.

Moving Forward

If you haven’t gathered by now, there is unfortunately no more Moving Forward this season for the Wildcats. Thanks to the UCLA Bruins, the ‘Cats have been knocked out of the NCAA Tournament and are back home in Evanston for the long haul. The team can finally take some much-deserved rest and heal up before gearing back up for next season.

This also means that there will be no more Women’s Soccer updates from me, at least for a while. I will have the post-mortem, which comes out tomorrow, but my time covering this team for this season has practically come to close.

I can’t be more grateful that I signed up to write the first Women’s Soccer update back in August. I could never have predicted the opportunities that would come of it. I hope all of y’all have enjoyed reading my coverage week-in, week-out, because I sure have enjoyed providing it. Thanks to Coach Moynihan, the team and all the staff for providing me with something entertaining to write about. This team was — and is — so, so special, and I can’t wait to see how it will shock the world next year.