STORY BY ADAM ROGAN
Drake hasn’t finished the regular season on top of the Missouri Valley Conference or gone undefeated in conference play since 2006.
That is, until now.
A scoreless draw with Loyola and a 1-1 tie against the University of Northern Iowa last week preserved Drake’s undefeated conference record and seat at top of the MVC. The last match on the schedule came on the road against the Missouri State Bears on Oct. 24, the second best team in the conference.
Drake only needed a tie to secure the top spot in the MVC entering the conference tournament, but two goals from Rebecca Rodgers pushed Drake over the top.
“(Rodgers) is just a special player,” head coach Lindsey Horner said. “Becca’s production in league is a big part of why we’ve done so well.”
Junior Kayla Armstrong took Drake’s only corner kick of the first half in the 36th minute. Rodgers was waiting in the box and put the ball into the upper corner of the goal to get Drake ahead 1-0.
“It’s really good for the team if you’re up a goal before you go down a goal so you have the confidence to lead into the rest of the game,” defender Ali Smith said.
The lead was extended to two in the 58th minute, again on a goal from Rodgers.
Smith stole a misguided pass and pushed the ball upfield in transition. She found Rodgers in enemy territory, primed to strike.
“Transition-wise you have to be on your toes,” Smith said “I read the ball and got in front of it and passed it to Becca. … (We need to be) ready for the mistakes that other teams are going to make so that we can capitalize.”
With only the goalkeeper between her and the net, Rodgers chipped the ball over the goalie for her ninth goal of the season.
That goal helped Rodgers earn MVC Offensive Player of the Week for the third time this month.
Now with a two-goal cushion, the pressure was on the Drake defense to protect the lead.
The Bears put two shots on goal in the first half, but tripled that in the second. Seven different Bears forced Drake goalkeeper Brooke Dennis to make plays in front of the net. And she was flawless.
Two weeks ago Dennis said that the defense was in need of a shutout to bolster their confidence as a team. Going 8-for-8 on saves against Missouri State, Dennis earned her second shutout of the season, both of which came in the last two weeks.
Not only was allowing just one goal in three games a boost that Dennis and the defense may have needed, but it also helped assert Drake’s dominance in the MVC.
“(Getting a shutout) was a long time coming for sure,” Horner said. “This time of the year you want to be playing your best and I think our defense has started to definitely put it together.”
“It was huge,” Smith added. “We’ve had issues letting scrappy goals get in.”
Dennis’s efforts earned her MVC Goalkeeper of the Week honors for the third straight week.
The Bulldogs are now the only unbeaten team in the MVC after dealing Missouri State their second loss of the conference season.
The Bulldogs now have two weeks off to rest and prepare for the MVC Tournament.
“A big part of our goal (this season) was to get a first round bye and to win the regular season,” Horner said. “Now that we’ve done that we’re going … to regroup and set our sights for what it looks like moving forward.”
Drake’s next opponent is yet to be decided, as there are several games that still need to be played in the MVC. But a bye in the first round is already guaranteed.
This gives Drake two weeks off before the tournament gets underway on Nov. 6 in Evansville, IN.
Just two wins stand between the Bulldogs and a conference championship – a championship that comes packaged with an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve been working so hard these past few weeks,” Rodgers said. “We’re ready to give it all we got and finally show the conference that we can actually do it and win it all.”