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The Collegian

The Student News Site of Ashland University

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Ashland University

The Collegian

AU women’s soccer falls in NCAA Tournament to Lakers, 1-0

The Eagles 2023 season comes to a close with a 19-1-4 overall record
Mike Hopkins
Eagle midfielder Ella Schneider dashes down the field with a Cedarville player trailing her.

An undefeated season came to a close for the Ashland University women’s soccer as they fell to the Grand Valley State Lakers in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Division II postseason tournament.

With the season on the line for both teams, the Lakers and Eagles competed from start to finish, with the traveling Lakers taking the edge in the final minutes of the contest. The Eagles were led by the forward play of McKinley Mendenhall and Dani Hicks, but with no one able to find the back netting, it was not enough for them to squeak by with a win in the 1-0 loss.

“I am really proud of the group and what they did over the course of the year.  At this point in the year, someone is going to move on and someone will get sent home,” said Paulino. “They went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the country.  You have to sometimes look back and take pride in the journey and not always the final game outcome.”

Before falling to the Lakers, the Eagles would ultimately possess a great poise in the NCAA tournament as they took down Michigan Tech and Cedarville University in the opening two rounds.

Against the Huskies, they showcased a heavy set of defensive power while piling on three goals at the feet of freshmen Sydney Polen, Ella Schneider and Tori Haggit. The team’s three goals would be answered by none from the Huskies.

The following round the Eagles would take on the Yellow Jackets, a Great Midwest Athletic Conference (GMAC) foe, and sneak away with a 2-0 win.

The team was once again led by a great defensive showing, with the team finding its 19th clean sheet on the season. The two goals found came from Polen and Schneider who continued their stellar play throughout the postseason.

“I thought the group had this new sense of not being satisfied,” said Head Coach Cayleb Paulino. “They hadn’t experienced a conference tournament final loss before and I think it created a new motivation to really focus our energy on the NCAA tournament.”

Unfortunately, the Eagles’ season would end prematurely as they fell in a nail-biting outing against the Lakers in the Sweet Sixteen.

Through 87 minutes of play, the two sides tussled back and forth with neither team able to take the edge. The Eagles and Lakers were level with 10 shots a piece, and an abundance of corner kicks to go alongside the intensity. The real separation came in the 87th minute as Laker forward Taylor Reid dashed her way past three Eagle defenders inside the box before drilling the ball into the bottom left corner.

Her shot would be the difference maker in the 1-0 win for the Lakers, knocking the Eagles out of the tournament in heartbreaking fashion.

Although they fell, Paulino made sure the team realized the incredible season they had put on for the program.

“I told the group after the game that this is what the staff has been waiting for now for three years.  The belief they have in each other, the trust they have in the staff, and the confidence they have in this program that we belong at this stage,” he said. “I think what stood out to me was no matter the situation, if we lost a player to injury, the next player was ready for their opportunity.  Regardless if it was being inserted into the starting lineup, moving up in the sub rotation, we had a lot of players make the most of their opportunities.”

The Eagles relied on countless individuals to rise to the occasion over the course of the season, with a multitude of freshmen stepping into starting roles. Most notable defensively came as Clara Richardson and Adi Turnbaugh were thrusted into starting roles with defenders Maddy Grabowski and Hope Evans being ruled out early in the season due to injury.

“Everyone here is part of our program for a reason. We feel they are able to make an impact in our program,” said Paulino. “What they do with that opportunity is up to them.”

Even with such trials and tribulations being thrown the Eagles’ way, they were able to finish the season with a staggering 55 goals for and just five goals against. Leading the charge offensively was Hicks who finished her sophomore campaign with nine goals and seven assists.

On the opposite side of the field, goalkeepers Mackenzie Simon and Maddie Dolenga were key pieces in helping limit opposing teams to just five goals on the season. They both combined for a total of 83 saves.

No matter who was on the field, in goal or in the field, the Eagles showcased a promising campaign that can only be built upon heading into the offseason.

“We talk about how it is different here when it comes to opportunity.  You are going to make mistakes early, but hopefully those experiences help you grow throughout the year when the games matter the most,” said Paulino. “Really excited how they handled the pressure and the environment of being one of the top teams in the country but that is why they chose Ashland.”

The team finished the season with a 19-1-4 record, a runner-up placement in the GMAC tournament, three D-II All American selections and countless other accolades, both individually and as a team.

“We are continuing to work to get better,” said Paulino. “The offseason is an opportunity to really dive in deep and focus on the development of our players.  I think that is where you see the most growth is from January through May.”

The Eagles will now shift the focus to the 2024 spring where they will work on recruiting, practicing and staying sharp for the next season ahead.

“The exciting piece is we return a lot of players so the competition every day is going to continue to be at a high level and I know our group is more motivated than ever to get back to work,” he concluded. “We will challenge our group with four or five games against D1 opponents this spring which always provides us a different set of challenges.”

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