When the IUPUI women’s soccer team takes the pitch on Friday evening against Cleveland State, it’ll be competing in its first ever Horizon League game.
Though it’s expected that IUPUI will be seeing better competition than it usually did in the Summit League, the Jaguars are looking at that as a chance to put their name in a brighter light nationally.
“It’s a really big change of pace to play new teams,” said senior Beth Parks, “and I think it’s a great opportunity for all of us.”
Last season, the Horizon League produced five teams that won at least nine games overall. The Summit League, for comparison, had four such teams. One of those teams was IUPUI (9-7-3, 3-3-2), but an overall increase in competitiveness means the Jaguars will have to take steps forward to keep pace.
The good news is IUPUI has shaken off its rocky start to the season, which saw the Jaguars lose three of their first four games. Since then, they’ve shut out four straight opponents, including a 3-0 win over Illinois State on Sunday.
“I think this pre-conference schedule that we’ve played prepared us really well,” said senior midfielder Hayley Shelton, who scored her first goal of the season against Illinois State.
Shelton has a point. The Jaguars’ defense is only getting better right now, and the offense so far has done very well in making the necessary adjustments and finding weaknesses to attack.
Back in mid-August, when the Horizon League’s 10 head coaches voted in the preseason poll, IUPUI came in at No. 7. With the Jaguars’ 5-3 record topping all but Milwaukee (6-0), perhaps coaches sold this team short in its inaugural season.
Aside from getting to compete against new teams this season, another change to look forward to is a less rigorous travel schedule.
“We’re able to not have as much travel on the plane, which helps us stay rested for the game,” said junior Becca Spitalniak.
The only time the Jaguars didn’t face a travel obstacle in the Summit League was when they played Fort Wayne, only about 130 miles northeast. Other than that, the Jaguars’ shortest trip was to Western Illinois, which is 260 miles away. Three Summit League teams are in the Dakotas, the closest of which was the University of South Dakota, just over 700 miles away. The farthest IUPUI would have to travel was to Denver University, over 1,000 miles away.
Meanwhile, the Horizon League, which is headquartered in Indianapolis, only features Midwest schools. The farthest the Jaguars will have to travel now is to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, which isn’t quite 400 miles away.
Not only will that help keep IUPUI better rested for road games, but according to Spitalniak, the Jaguars will also have a scouting advantage because most players on other conference teams are from the Midwest. That’s opposed to the Summit League, where teams are much more spread out.
Starting Friday, the Jaguars will start to deal with a pressure head-on that every IUPUI team will have to address at some point, if it already hasn’t, and that’s proving that they belong in the Horizon League.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to come out and show everyone what we have and what we’re capable of,” said Spitalniak.
IUPUI will play nine conference games, five of which will be at Michael A. Carroll Stadium.