For the first two months of the season, Northwestern women’s soccer couldn’t find a steady rhythm. They struggled to integrate new players into both their offensive scheme and back line, and returning All-American goalkeeper Lauren Clem missed saves that head coach Michael Moynihan categorized as “uncharacteristic.”
To many, it looked like the 2016 team that won a share of the Big Ten title and advanced to the NCAA Quarterfinals could be followed by a group without postseason hopes.
After losses to teams like Cincinnati and Illinois followed by an upset of No. 23 Minnesota, Sunday’s match against Wisconsin (10-4-2, 4-3-2 B1G) was a must-win. With a 2-0 win over the Badgers, NU improved to 8-6-2 (5-3-1 B1G). With a record two wins above .500, their hopes of a run in the Big Ten Tournament and bid for the NCAA Tournament are back in sight.
For the majority of the first half, the two teams played between the boxes and consistently changed possession. Northwestern was able to get eight shots off, but they contained Wisconsin to the midfield on defense and only allowed three shots by the Badgers in the first half.
In the 38th minute, senior Kim Jerantowski had a long pass to junior Brenna Lovera who found freshman McKenna Angotti for the finish. The goal was Angotti’s second of the season.
Just over two minutes later, the ‘Cats scored again. A free kick from junior Marisa Viggiano went toward senior Grace Orndorff, and Orndorff found the back of the goal to give NU a two point lead. Viggiano’s assist marked her sixth of the season and 13th career.
The team has had success recently with set-piece goals, and Orndorff said the character of this year’s team has allowed them to bounce back late in the season. She wasn’t surprised that they upset both Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“Playing against good teams brings out the best in our team,” Orndorff said. “It takes a higher level of focus, and with that we excel. It also makes us play faster, and I think when we play faster we also play better.”
The second half was characterized by the same back-and-forth play, with possession changing constantly around midfield. The Northwestern defense looked especially strong and prevented the Badgers from breaking the back line. When they did get close to the goal, Clem didn’t let anything in, forcing her 44th career shutout and sixth of the season with a total of five saves.
Head coach Michael Moynihan said he’s been particularly impressed with how composed Clem has stayed throughout the season. He said changes to the overall lineup impacted the strength of the defense as a whole and that like other great players, Lauren just missed a few unexpected shots early on.
“Lauren has shown an awful lot of maturity,” Moynihan said. “She set a lot of records last year and everybody’s always talking shutouts. When the shutouts aren’t happening, it’s ‘ uh-oh, chaos, what’s going on?’ She’s kept her head very level about the team and not really about records, and I give her a lot of credit for that. I think that stability is starting to shine through and our defense has been very, very consistent.”
Junior defender Hannah Davison echoed Moynihan’s comments about adjusting to a lineup. She mentioned that she’s glad they’re peaking now, because winning end-of-season games will help propel the team into the postseason.
“At the start of the season we had a lot of freshmen in, a lot of freshmen starting,” Davidson said. “We just had to start getting our rhythm down. A lot of people have stepped up in big roles for communication, and that’s huge for how we play. We’re starting to finally click and get that final third pass connected, and that’s going to make all the difference moving forward.”
The Wildcats take on Nebraska at home on Saturday for their final home match of the season. After that, they travel to Michigan State, and if they remain in the top eight teams in the conference (they're currently fourth behind Ohio State, Minnesota and Penn State), they’ll play in the Big Ten Tournament. If they don't win that, they will need to secure an at-large bid to make it to the NCAA Tournament, but with wins against Minnesota, Wisconsin and potentially Nebraska, Northwestern’s resume will likely earn them a spot.
Editor's note: A previous version of the story mispelled Hannah Davison's name. NBN regrets the error.