Final Four analysis: Western women’s soccer looks to end “curse”
2013: 2-1 overtime loss to West Florida University in the semifinal round.
2015: 3-2 loss to eventual champion Grand Valley State University in the semifinal round.
One could say these results, from the last two times Western women’s soccer reached the final four of the NCAA Division II Soccer Championships, are a trend.
Junior defender Sierra Shugarts was only in Viking blue and white for the Grand Valley State loss, but she’s filled with a desire to write new history for the program. If she has anything to say about it, Western will be playing for a national championship on Saturday.
“We want to come out with lots of energy and break the final four curse and play in a championship match,” Shugarts said.
The Vikings take on Kutztown University in hopes of halting the curse at 6 p.m. PST on Thursday, Dec. 1 at Swope Soccer Village in Kansas City, Missouri.
When looking at the team, top-to-bottom, balance is the word that comes to mind. In 23 total matches, the Vikings are outscoring opponents 60-8.
Western is ranked number 1 overall in the nation, a spot they’ve held since October 11. The team was perfect in Great Northwest Athletic Conference play (12-0-0) and boasts an undefeated record at 22-0-1, including a 22-game winning streak — the best active streak in the nation.
The Vikings are dripping with talent, including eight All-GNAC team selections and five All-West Region selections — along with 19 different players having notched a goal this season. Goal leaders include sophomore forward Gabriela Pelogi (10), senior forward Elise Aylward (8), senior midfielder Caitlyn Jobanek (7) and freshman forward Liv Larson (7). Midfielder Emily Webster also adds three goals to her team leading eight assists. The defense is led by a trio of players selected to both the All-GNAC and All-Region teams: Shugarts, senior defender Erin Russell and redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Ashley Homer. These three — along with sophomore defender Taylor Hallquist, redshirt freshman defender Annaliese Laurila, junior defender Malia Maack and freshman defender Emily Nelson — have solidified a Viking defense that has 16 shutouts in 23 matches.
Scouting the Kutztown University Golden Bears (Pennsylvania)
Overall record: 20-4-0
Kutztown could be the “Cinderella story” of the tournament, if you will. The 2016 season marks the first time the Golden Bears have earned a final four berth and this year’s squad has set program bests for wins in a season — the school’s first 20-win season — and regular season victories. This season was also the first time Kutztown won the Atlantic Region Championship after the team knocked off Bridgeport University 1-0, despite being outshot 25-2 in the match. Kutztown’s win stopped Bridgeport from reaching the final four for a second consecutive season.
The Golden Bears are largely led by freshmen, specifically midfielder/forward Maddie Mohr. Mohr notched 11 goals and 7 assists on the season, leading Kutztown in both categories. Mohr was one of just four freshmen in the country to nab All-American honors. Kutztown’s other notable freshmen are forward Cara Griffith and midfielder/forward Emily Zwiercan. Griffith is eighth on the team with 8 goals and Zwiercan has 5 goals, including the game winner over Bridgeport, as well as 6 assists — good for second most on the team. Overall, freshmen have scored 73 percent of Kutztown’s goals this season.
Kutztown has scored five goals so far in the NCAA Tournament, compared to Western’s nine — both teams have given up two goals apiece.
Western: sophomore forward Gabriela Pelogi
It’s weird to say someone who leads a team in goals is an “x-factor,” but Pelogi fits the description. The sophomore has notched 10 goals on the season, but five of them have come in the postseason. Of the five, two came in a tense, 2-1 overtime win over the University of California, San Diego that sent Western to the round of eight. The other three came in the GNAC tournament as she coasted to the tournament’s MVP honor. Pelogi has a knack for taking over big games and her poise in pressure situations could be an asset against Kutztown.
- Bonus: freshman forward Peyton Chick
Chick has scored three goals on her freshman campaign, tied for sixth on the team. What jumps out though, is her high volume of shots and her ability to stick her nose in the action. Chick has appeared in every game for Western and is fourth for the Vikings in three categories: assists (5), shots (47) and shots on goal (25). Don’t be surprised if a couple freshman, both Chick and Larson, make their mark on the Kutztown match.
Kutztown: senior forward Alaina Curry
Not to be forgotten among Kutztown’s youth is senior forward Alaina Curry. Curry has missed just six games in her four-year career and is fourth in Kutztown’s school history with 26 goals, including seven this season. Curry was a first-team selection for both the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and the Atlantic Region this season.
Keys to the match
Don’t let Kutztown score first.
Kutztown lost to East Stroudsburg 2-1 in the PSAC championship game. The loss was the only time in the last 25 games in which the Golden Bears scored first, yet lost; in that span, the team is 24-1. Western is capable of coming from behind to win, like it did in its 5-1 victory over Colorado School of Mines, but it would behoove the Vikings to get on the board first.
Capitalize on goal scoring opportunities.
The Golden Bears got away with mustering just two shots against Bridgeport in its 1-0 victory. Kutztown survived despite Bridgeport peppering Kutztown sophomore goalkeeper Imani Taylor with 25 shots. Sometimes you can’t help a goalie playing out of their mind, but the Vikings will need the likes of Pelogi, Aylward, Jobanek and Larson to not just pepper Taylor, but find the back of the net when opportunities to score arise.
Put the Golden Bears away.
In the round of 16, Kutztown found itself down 2-0 to West Chester — a team it had already lost to 3-1 in conference play. The Golden Bears came back to win 3-2, scoring all three goals in a 15-minute span. Western can’t let a team capable of such a comeback do so again. In the 5-1 victory over Colorado School of Mines, the Vikings controlled possession and used their defenders to switch the ball or find openings down field. Western needs to use similar tactics when possible, the backline does a good job of not forcing anything, and the team could be on its way to another five goal eruption.
“We are just going to play like we usually do and stick with what we know and hopefully find some results,” Shugarts said.
- Game time: 6 p.m. PST, today; streaming live at http://www.ncaa.com/championship/liveplayer/player?gameId=2276195
- Championship match: 1 p.m. PST, Saturday, Dec. 3
- The winner of Western vs. Kutztown plays the winner of Grand Valley State and Columbus State University