The last time the IUPUI women’s soccer team made the playoffs, Taylor Swift was still a country queen.
Their opponent this year, Notre Dame, had been an NCAA Tournament shoo-in for past 25 years, since Swift was in diapers.
Several similarities mark the 2009 and 2017 IUPUI tournament squads: strong senior leadership, team camaraderie--
And a 5-0 first-round NCAA tournament defeat by the same Goliath.
Although the Notre Dame women’s soccer team (10-6-4) dismantled the Lady Jaguars 5-0 in the first round of the NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer Championship in South Bend on Saturday night--the same score as the 2009 IUPUI squad’s loss-- IUPUI coach Chris Johnson said the team is proud of their historic season.
“These young ladies have shown nothing but heart all season long, and I'm not choosing to remember them based on the outcome of tonight's match,” Johnson said. “I'm remembering all the long hours of hard work they've put in the past four years to make this season special.”
The Lady Jaguars finished the season with a record of 14-6-3, going 6-2-1 in Horizon League play and winning the program’s first Horizon League championship.
And the team has reason to be optimistic for next season--Horizon League Goalkeeper of the Year Sophia Lipka, who earned Horizon League tournament MVP honors after shutting out top-seeded Milwaukee in the championship and recording 17 saves in regulation, tied for the second-most in team history, is only a sophomore. Forward Valentine Pursey, who joined Lipka on the all-Horizon League tournament team and scored all four of IUPUI’s regulation goals through three tournament games, is a freshman.
But the Lady Jaguars also graduate six senior leaders, including forward Krissy Kirkhoff, the program’s all-time leading scorer and an all-Horizon League tournament team selection.
Senior midfielder Sarah Jacobs said this year’s team had the best leadership and heart she had experienced in her four years in the program.
“About two-thirds of our team is underclassmen,” Jacobs said. “So all the seniors had to take more of an initiative this year to lead the team to success.”
Pursey, who has played with England Women’s Super League teams, agrees the 2017 squad was special.
“The seniors played a huge part in our success this season,” she said. “They showed everyone that you have to play every game with championship-level effort.”
Jacobs points to the team’s New York trip to play Manhattan in September as the turning point in the team’s season. They’d lost three of their past four games, eking out a single 1-0 victory against Evansville. The NCAA tournament seemed like a distant dream.
But then Johnson decided his players should have what Jacobs calls the “full New York experience.”
“Our coach had us take two buses, a ferry, and a series of subways to get to our game,” she said. “It took a total of five hours just to get there, and then we had to be ready to compete against a very good team.”
Even though it took twice as long to get to the game as it did to play it, the Lady Jaguars came away with a win.
Jacobs said the experience was a pivotal moment in the team’s season.
“We realized that even if we are against all odds, we still have the heart and ability to compete against any team we face,” she said.
Did they ever.
The victory over Manhattan launched a 12-game winning streak that would last for more than a month and a half, until a 6-0 loss to top-ranked Milwaukee on Oct. 18.
While ripping off 12 wins in a row and losing only twice to Horizon League opponents may make it appear as though the conference clashes were smooth sailing for the Lady Jaguars, Jacobs said moving from the Summit League to the Horizon League shortly before the season was the team’s toughest challenge.
“It meant we had a completely different set of teams we were expected to compete with--and no idea what to expect,” she said.
Jacobs said she and her teammates were rankled when preseason rankings were released--and the Lady Jaguars were ranked seventh out of the 10 Horizon League teams.
“But instead of putting us down, the low ranking only fueled our desire to prove everyone wrong,” she said.
Their next goal?
To show this season wasn’t a fluke.
Jacobs will graduate and pursue a career in Health Sciences. But Pursey is itching to hit the pitch for her sophomore season.
“I’ve learned a lot this season that I look forward to taking into next season,” she said. “I’m looking forward to showing again what a good team we are.”