Drake drops five-setter to UNI, eliminated from playoff contention

November 19, 2015 10:03 AM


The Bulldogs were able to put up a fight in the Knapp Center against the University of Northern Iowa Panthers on Saturday night, but were unable to close out the match in the fifth set.

Grace Schofield goes up for a back row hit. PHOTO BY ALICIA KANG | STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Grace Schofield goes up for a back row hit. PHOTO BY ALICIA KANG | STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“I have mixed emotions about the game Saturday,” head coach Darrin McBroom said. “On one hand, (I’m) disappointed that we pushed them to five (sets) and couldn’t quite get it done in the fifth. On the other hand … it does show tremendous progress the team has made, that we have gotten so much better from where we’ve been and that we are heading in the right direction.”


Conference champions, NCAA Tournament up next

November 18, 2015 8:00 AM


The Championship

Every player dreams of making that one big goal, putting their team on top as the clock ticks down.

“It’s good to see all your hard work in the season to pay off; it doesn’t always,” head coach Gareth Smith said modestly.

Paul Ciszewski did just that in truly dramatic fashion, scoring his first collegiate goal after coming off the bench to give Drake a 1-0 victory over the SIU-Edwardsville Cougars in the Missouri Valley Conference Championship finals.


Bulldogs survive Cyclones, win thrilling season-opener

November 15, 2015 6:04 PM


With the Bulldogs’ season opener on the line, the game fell into the hands of a freshman playing in her first-career regular-season game.

Twice in the final 24 seconds of the game, guard Nicole Miller toed the charity stripe and hit a pair of free throws to keep the Iowa State Cyclones at bay. Those four points proved to be the difference, as Drake beat the Cyclones 74-70 to open the season.

Drake held a 70-67 lead after a pair of foul shots from ISU’s Seanna Johnson. Miller was fouled in the backcourt with 25.6 seconds remaining. After Miller converted both of her free throws, Caitlin Ingle committed a basketball cardinal sin by fouling Jadda Buckley on a three-point attempt. Buckley made each free throw, and the Drake lead was down to 72-70.

Again, the ball found Miller, who was fouled with four seconds remaining. She calmly hit both shots, giving Drake a two-possession lead and ultimately its first victory over the Cyclones since 2009, 74-70.

The 18-year-old from Walker, Iowa, was prepared for the pressure after weeks of preseason practice.

“When I got to the free-throw line, I just thought about being in the gym,” Miller said. “I talked a lot with our Coach Jacqui (Kalin) just about relaxing and just blocking out everything.”

“We got beat by a better team,” ISU coach Bill Fennelly said.

Team is the optimum word. The Cyclone starters scored 59 points, but their teammates on the bench could only manage 11. Drake, in contrast, got 36 points from its bench, led by Sara Rhine, another freshman, with 15. Miller added 13. Each Bulldog who played scored.

“Everybody scored, everybody had rebounds, everybody did their part, so, in that sense, I couldn’t be more proud of our team,” head coach Jennie Baranczyk said. “Everybody did their part and I love that.”

Lizzy Wendell, last season’s MVC scoring champion, was quiet in the first half, making one shot on three attempts. As she’s done during her entire career, however, she managed to produce. She scored 14 in the final two quarters, including three straight buckets in the third quarter to turn a 41-36 deficit into a 42-41 Drake lead. It was her 44th straight game of scoring 10-plus points, which helped her earn MVC Player of the Week for the first time this season.

“(I) just stayed in the game, kept shooting, kept moving on offense, kept trusting my teammates and trusting Caitlin to get me the ball and then (shots) ended up falling,” Wendell said.

Wendell’s baskets were the turning point of the third quarter. Those six points marked the start of a 21-7 Drake run, in which four other Bulldogs scored. With one quarter remaining, Drake led 57-48.

The Cyclones struggled to make baskets, especially from downtown (8 of 33). Iowa State relies on threes, much like Drake, but the Cyclones couldn’t find their rhythm on Saturday.

“Just a matter of missed shots; we need to be back in the gym more,” Buckley said.

But the Cyclones did not want to go quietly. They narrowed the Bulldogs’ lead to five with 7:09 to go, but then hit a dry spell. Drake did too, as neither team scored for nearly three minutes. A 3-pointer from Wendell and a layup from Ingle gave Drake a 70-60 lead, but ISU, again, refused to accept its fate.

Johnson hit a jumper with 2:11 remaining, ISU’s first points in nearly five minutes. TeeTee Starks followed with an and-one layup on the next possession. Starks hit the free throw, and the 10-point lead was halved.

Maddy Dean, who quietly had a 10-point, 11-rebound double-double, fouled Johnson with 1:26 to go. Johnson made both her foul shots to trim the lead to three, setting up Miller’s clutch free throws.

“It’s nice to protect our house and get this big win, especially against a great team like Iowa State,” Wendell said.

The season couldn’t have started much better. Baranczyk said after the game that Iowa State would be a top-25 team this year. Now the job is prolonging that success against Wisconsin on Wednesday.

“It’s a big win to propel us to our nonconference schedule,” Baranczyk said. “Our big test is: OK, can you win a game and now sustain it?”

Drake’s offensive struggles cause road loss to Butler

1:02 AM


Despite holding a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter, Drake fell to Butler 20-13 in Indianapolis.

After a Josh Lee field goal and a Michael Hudson 18 yard touchdown reception from Cody Thibault, Drake’s offense hit a wall. They would only score once more in the game – Lee making a 30 yard field goal late in the third quarter.

Drake’s three scoring drives combined for 179 yards on 26 plays. Drake’s remaining 28 plays only resulted in 70 yards of offense.

Drake was only able to produce 74 yards on the ground with starting running back Conley Wilkins not suiting up for the game. Thibault, in his third start of the season, threw for 175 yards on 27 attempts with one interception to go along with his touchdown pass.

Butler had no such issues. Their quarterback, Matt Schlitz, accounted for 304 yards of total offense and threw for two touchdowns. In total, Butler recorded 369 yards, 120 more than Drake.

Butler’s comeback began midway through the second quarter when a 67 yard drive ended with a 34 yard field goal. The game was tied with 7:06 left in the third after Schlitz found Zack Wolfe in the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown pass.

Lee’s second field goal would put Drake back on top 13-10, but not for long. On Butler’s ensuing possession, Schlitz found freshman for a 56-yard completion to running back John Hall, who was finally forced out of bounds by Brad Duwe at the Drake 14 yard line as time expired in the third quarter. Schlitz found his number one receiver, Marquese Martin-Hayes, for the touchdown on the next play.

That put Butler on top 17-13, and the Drake offense wasn’t able to contest throughout the rest of the fourth. Drake was able to make a stand inside their own redzone to hold Butler to a field goal with less than four minutes left, but that would be the end of the positives for the game.

Drake’s final possession would end on an interception and Butler would run the clock out to end the game.

Drake will finish their season at home next Saturday against Dayton.

Bulldogs advance in the MVC Tournament with 2-0 win over Central Arkansas

November 11, 2015 7:45 PM


The Bulldogs proved why they were favorites in their first round matchup today against the sixth ranked Central Arkansas Bears in the Missouri Valley Conference Championship tournament in Edwardsville, Illinois.

Drake was 9-4-3 in the regular season and 3-1-2 against conference opponents entering the tournament. Central Arkansas, on the other hand, was a dismal 2-15-1 with just one win against an MVC team in 2015.

Junior Ben LeMay got Drake out in front in the 17th minute on a cross from sophomore Gabe Edel. It was a lead that the Bulldogs would not relinquish, nor would they give the Bears many chances to equalize the score in the first half. Drake took twice as many shots as Central Arkansas in the first 45 minutes of play.

Freshman Nic Jaimes gave the Bulldogs an insurance goal in the 58th minute. After receiving a pass from sophomore Steven Enna, Jaimes beat a defender one-on-one and fired a shot into the upper-right corner of the goal to put Drake ahead 2-0.

Newly named head coach Gareth Smith utilized a plethora of subs – 20 different Bulldogs taking to the field throughout the match – in order to keep the team energized and focused in the game’s final minutes. This strategy proved effective as the defense held strong for the remaining 30-plus minutes to secure goalkeeper Darrin MacLeod’s fifth shutout of 2015.

The Bradley Braves await the Bulldogs for the MVC semifinal match. Kickoff is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Friday night. This comes just six days after the two teams faced off in the final match of the regular season. That match ended tied at one after Bradley scored a goal in the 89th minute to keep Drake from earning a first round bye in the conference tournament.

The winner will face either no. 5 Loyola or no. 1 SIUE in the MVC championship. The last time Drake made it that far was in 2009, when they won the conference and advanced to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament.

Men’s soccer: Drake’s regular season end with tie

9:00 AM


Drake battled to a 1-1 tie with the Bradley Braves at home on Saturday evening after Gareth Smith was promoted to head coach. He has led the team as an interim head coach all season and been an assistant for the five years previous.

“I don’t think it changes the nature of the position or what we’re trying to achieve,” Smith said. “I’m excited about the opportunity to be the coach at Drake and just want to continue the work that we’ve been doing in the past two, three months.”

Had the Bulldogs managed to pull out the win, they would’ve stolen the second seed in the Missouri Valley Conference from Bradley heading into the conference tournament. However, as neither team was able to score in overtime, the rankings remained unchanged.

The match was Drake’s fourth straight to go into overtime after tying three of their last four matches and losing to Edwardsville on Oct. 24 via golden goal in the 105th minute.

“That extra 20 minutes will certainly influence you in the next three to four games and your recovery time. It’s certainly become more kind of squad games now that we’re seeing a lot more substitutions being done to keep us fresh,” junior James Wypych said. “(It’s) a big squad effort, not just the 11 guys on the field.”

“Looking back at those games, sure there were opportunities to get a result,” goalkeeper Darrin MacLeod added, “but I don’t think our performance in those last four games have really been any different than how we’ve been preforming earlier in the season.”

Drake got out ahead of the Braves midway through the first half. Midfielder Mueng Sunday hit Wypych with a long pass. Wypych’s dribbling beat the lone defender and his finishing put the ball past the goalie.

Wypych now has seven goals on the season and Sunday has just as many assists, both of which lead the team.

The two teams looked even throughout the match, each finishing with six shots on goal in regular time. Bad news for the Bulldogs — they would end up even on the scoreboard as well.

With less than two minutes remaining, Bradley midfielder Andrew Brown scored his first goal of the season to tie the match at one.

“It’s an indication that, through the course of the game, we need to take the chances that we’re given,” Smith said. “If you don’t take those chances then you always give the opposition an opportunity to get back in the game at one-nothing, but if you get it to two or three then you can sustain one of those mistakes or concentration lapse.”

The goal broke goalkeeper Darrin MacLeod’s chance at his fourth shutout of the season.

The Bulldogs have been unable to keep an opponent scoreless since Oct. 13 when they defeated Western Illinois on the road 1-0.

Their third place finish in conference will force the Bulldogs to play in the first round of the MVC Championship Tournament in Edwardsville, IL. The Bulldogs will face off with the no. 6 Central Arkansas Bears tonight.

“Our front three need to concentrate on being clinical in the final third,” Smith said, “and I think as a unit, but in particular our back line … is going to have to be good because it’s in the later stages when your concentration goes that you really need to fight against the fatigue in order to be more focused and close games out.”

Should the Bulldogs come out on top in that match, Bradley will be waiting for them again on Friday night.

“They’re certainly not a team that we can overlook. We didn’t have the easiest of times when we went to Central Arkansas,” MacLeod said. “When it comes to the details they can get one lucky thing and then we can be backs against the wall, so we really can’t underestimate Wednesday’s game.”

Women’s Basketball: Three things to look for in 2015-16

7:00 AM


Drake Women’s Basketball won both of their exhibition games, and the season begins Sunday when the Bulldogs host the Iowa State Cyclones at the Knapp Center. Drake was projected to finish second in the Missouri Valley Conference, so here are three things to watch for as the season gets underway.

1. Lizzy Wendell’s workload

Wendell is Drake’s best player — and arguably the best in the conference — so keeping her fresh and healthy will be essential if the Bulldogs want to make a run for to the NCAA tournament. Last season, she averaged 32.7 minutes per game. And you can’t blame coach Jennie Baranczyk for keeping her on the floor – Wendell averaged 21.8 points per contest, tops in the conference.

Will that continue this season? That depends on if Wendell’s teammates can produce enough so she can get some rest. Maddy Dean and Caitlin Ingle both complimented Wendell last season and Sara Rhine has shown she can score in the two exhibition games, so there are options outside of Wendell playing more than 30 minutes every time out.

Baranczyk said after Drake’s second exhibition game that she hopes the team can win without Wendell having to score 30 per game. That alone shows how important she is. On offense, she can play in the post and attack from beyond the arc. She’s a disruptor on defense as well, leading the team in both blocks and steals against Simpson. Drake is simply better with her on the court.

Drake’s Missouri Valley Conference foes will likely have better plans to defend against Wendell in her junior year. The test will be whether Drake’s offense can remain effective while Wendell is on the bench.

2. Life without Becca Jonas

Jonas, who started all 31 games at center last season and averaged 12.5 points and 9.1 rebounds, is lost for the season after surgery on her left knee. Baranczyk said in her media day presser that it’s impossible to replace a player of her caliber, but the Bulldogs will have to try.

Emma Donahue started both exhibition games. The 6-foot-2 senior scored eight and two points, respectively, pulling down six rebounds in all. Granted, this is a miniscule sample size, but replacing Jonas will likely need to be a team effort.   

Dean and Wendell can both play inside with Donahue, but both are at their best off the bounce. Rhine, for now, looks like the quick fix. Long and athletic, she can rebound, run the floor and finish around the rim. Against Simpson, she showed she could finish through contact, scoring four baskets after being fouled.

Donahue will likely be the starter for the foreseeable future, and Rhine will be a weapon coming of the bench. With their fast-paced offense, the Bulldogs will likely make up for Jonas’s scoring. In place of her rebounding, Donahue, Rhine, Dean and Wendell will all have to crash the boards to compensate. They did so on Sunday, collecting 25 boards.

3. Where do the freshmen fit?

Sammie Bachrodt started both exhibition contests in the backcourt with Ingle and Dean. Nicole Miller came off the bench to run the top of the full-court press. Rhine scored 34 points in the two contests and Madelyne Johnson also saw more than 12 minutes in both games.

There are only 10 players on the roster, so all of them will get to play. Baranczyk praised Bachrodt on Sunday, citing her high basketball IQ and active hands on defense.

Miller, a high-school cross-country runner, was active at the top of the Bulldogs’ press Sunday, hounding the Simpson guards. She’s not yet the primary backup to Ingle — that duty falls to sophomore Pagie Greiner — but her fresh legs coming onto the court can frustrate tired guards at the end of the game.

Rhine carried the offensive load when Wendell was on the bench Sunday, scoring 24 points in 22 minutes. In the two exhibitions, she and Miller have been the two best scoring options off the bench. That’s good news for a team where depth is still a question mark.

Worst-case scenario:

Wendell gets injured, and the Bulldogs can’t replace her production. Without Jonas, Drake struggles to rebound and is continually beaten under the basket. The offense struggles to score like it did last season, and Drake finishes around .500 and far out of the MVC title race.

Best-case scenario:

Wendell repeats or improves upon a phenomenal sophomore season and is supported with production from Ingle and Dean. Donahue and Rhine combine to make up for the loss of Jonas, and Miller, Rhine, Greiner and Cortni Rush produce enough to keep Drake in the game while the starters rest on the bench. The Bulldogs win more than 20 games, win the MVC tournament and reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.

This week in Drake Athletics: Nov. 1-8

November 9, 2015 11:30 AM


Women’s Basketball

Led by Lizzy Wendell’s 22 points, the Bulldogs started their preseason with a 96-46 victory over crosstown rival Grand View at the Knapp Center last Tuesday. The youthful Bulldogs saw significant playing time for everyone on the team, no player logging less than 18 minutes on the court. Freshman Nicole Miller, who won the Miss Iowa Basketball last year as a senior in high school, scored 15 points, nine of which came from beyond the arc. Freshman forward Sara Rhine also scored 14 points. She showed a strong post presence, something that will prove crucial this season since sophomore Becca Jonas had season-ending knee surgery.

Drake again dominated in their second exhibition match against Simpson, 94-61. The Bulldogs’ highest point was their dominance in transition and on the fast break. They forced 22 turnovers, translating into 32 points, and outscored Simpson 20-4 on fastbreak points. Wendell again led with 33 points. She was followed by Rhine with 24 points and seven rebounds. Junior guard Caitlin Ingle also contributed a game-high 10 assists.

Men’s Basketball

In their first and only exhibition match, the Men’s Basketball team defeated McKendree at the Knapp Center, 95-78. Forward Kale Abrahamson led the way, scoring 22 points, 15 of which came from 3-pointers, and pulling down six rebounds. Sophomore guards Reed Timmer and Graham Woodward followed up with 16 and 18 points, respectively. Woodward shot 4-5 from beyond the arc and also contributed eight assists. Their season will begin on Friday at home against Simpson.


The Bulldogs dropped two matches last week, falling 1-3 to Wichita State and 0-3 to Missouri State in their final road matches of 2015. Wichita State is currently the best team in the MVC and so the Bulldogs being able to even force a fourth set on the road was viewed as a success by the team.

The Bulldogs struggled away from Des Moines this season. Their record was 3-6 against conference opponents on the road. They will play again this Saturday night at the Knapp Center against UNI. The last time these two teams met Drake was swept 0-3 in Ames.


The Rowing team outraced Creighton in a duel meet on Saturday. With times of 5:50.6 and 6:04.3 for the 8+ Boats, the Bulldogs impressed on the Des Moines River. The 4+ boat logged a time of 7:47, but were defeated by Creighton. There were two exhibition races as well, of which Drake won one and lost one.

Women’s Basketball: Drake finishes perfect exhibition season by burying Simpson

November 8, 2015 6:32 PM

By Austin Cannon

The Bulldogs finished their short exhibition season the way every team wants to: a pair of easy victories without any injuries. Now Drake has a week to prepare for its opener against Iowa State.

The Bulldogs won their second and final exhibition game Sunday at the Knapp Center, drubbing Simpson, 94-61. Drake also beat Grand View on Tuesday, cruising past the Vikings, 96-46.

“We’re feeling good,” forward Lizzy Wendell said. “We’re glad we got two wins out of this.”

Like the contest before it, Sunday’s game against Simpson was hardly in doubt. The Storm’s final lead of the game was 9-8 in the first quarter. A Nicole Miller transition layup gave Drake the 10-9 lead with 6:42 left in the first and Drake took off from there.

Wendell, last season’s Missouri Valley Conference scoring champion, led all scorers with 33 points. Freshman forward Sara Rhine came off the bench and led Drake’s second unit with 24 points on 9 of 12 shooting.

Simpson plays the same style Drake does: high-pressure defense that operates baseline-to-baseline and a fast-paced offense that puts up a high volume of shots. The two teams unsurprisingly combined for 138 shots on the afternoon.

Drake took a 47-36 lead into halftime. The Bulldogs returned to the floor and went on a 13-0 run, working the ball down low.

“When we have an advantage like we did, we needed to be able to score in the paint a little more in the second half,” head coach Jennie Baranczyk said. “I think we did that.”

The Bulldogs did indeed, scoring 22 points in the paint in the third quarter. Rhine added 10 more points to her tally by shooing 80 percent from the floor. The freshman from Eldon, Missouri, was the primary scoring threat when Wendell was out of the game. With center Becca Jonas out for the year, the 6-foot-1 Rhine will be called upon early and often to provide an inside presence.

“She’s going to be one of those players that grows a lot this season,” Baranczyk said.

Since it was the exhibition season, Baranczyk was able to experiment with whom she put on the floor. At times in the second, third and fourth quarters, she would take out starters Wendell, Caitlin Ingle, Maddy Dean and Emma Donahue and replace them with her team’s younger players.

Each of Drake’s 10 players scored and all of them played at least 13 minutes in the exhibition finale.

“It’s really fun to be able to go out and sit on the bench and then watch out second group keep the intensity, keep the pressure and then keep the lead,” Wendell said.

Baranczyk said she has an idea of what her typical player rotation will be, but she will still need her team to be able to play together no matter who’s on the floor at any given moment.

“We mix up groups and just mix up different sets so that everyone gets a feel with everyone and can see all the different options,” Rhine said.

Drake was also able keep Simpson contained; the Storm could never take control of the game and turned the ball over 22 times. Fifteen of those turnovers were Drake steals.

“I think we’ve gotten better defensively,” Baranczyk said. “We’ve gotten better, partially, because we understand our system more.”

The Bulldogs depended heavily on Wendell. She led the team in points (33), shots (17), rebounds (eight), blocks (two), steals (five) and minutes (27). The junior scoring machine had to carry the offense with limited production from the other four starters, who managed only 20 points combined.

Baranczyk won’t complain about a huge game from her star, but she wouldn’t mind if someone — like Rhine — occasionally eases the pressure off Wendell.

“She is going to have to lead us to a certain extent,” Baranczyk said. “We just hope its not (that) she has to score 30 points every night for us to win a game.”

The Bulldogs have a week to prepare for the Cyclones, who enter the season just outside the AP top 25, receiving four votes. The practice games are over; the real season starts Sunday at 2 p.m.

“I think the biggest thing we’re going to take out is we’ve got to stay focused and locked in,” Baranczyk said, “yet, we’ve got to continue to get better.”

Men’s Soccer: Tie at Loyola, look to break winless streak against Bradley

November 7, 2015 5:00 PM


In a match defined by defense from both sides, the Bulldogs and the Loyola Ramblers played to a 1-1 tie, featuring redshirt senior Kyle Whigham’s first career goal. Loyola had twice as many shots on goal as Drake, but that didn’t mean much when the Bulldogs only fired two shots towards the net.

However, one of them still managed to cross the goal line as the Bulldogs got onto the board first in the 26th minute.

From 25 yards out, Whigham found the ball at his feet and blasted it towards the edge of the goal. It just barely missed the post and ended up in the back of the net.

It was also the first goal that Loyola has surrendered since Sept. 19.

“For me it’s been a long time coming,” Whigham said. “When the time came I made it count. It was a long distance shot and that’s something I’ve been working on over the course of five years and finally it has paid off in a big conference game for us.”

Despite playing in all 15 games this season and more than 50 over the past four seasons, Whigham never scored until Saturday night. He didn’t even have a shot on goal in 2015 until the goal.

Drake played conservatively once they were in the lead, the opposite of the Ramblers’ strategy. Loyola was called for four offsides violations in the match while Drake did not have any. The Ramblers took 11 corner kicks. Drake only had two.

It looked as though Drake was going to be able to hold off the Ramblers onslaught, but Loyola still managed to find the net with just over three minutes left in regulation.
Loyola forward Kevin Engesser had the ball in the box. He dropped the ball off to Connor Stevenson who dribbled the ball once before putting it past Drake goalkeeper Darrin MacLeod for the 87th minute equalizer.

The Bulldogs again struggled to generate offense in overtime. They only took two shots, only one of which was on goal. The Ramblers weren’t much better as they took five shots and only forced MacLeod to make one save. The match ended in a 1-1 draw.

The Bulldogs haven’t won in three straight games. They tied Omaha and lost to SIUE at home last week, but will look to turn that around in their final home match of the season against Bradley on Senior Night.

“We’re ready to make the sacrifice for each other,” Whigham said. “It will be emotional, but at the same time we have a lot of games ahead that we plan on winning.”

Bradley is currently ranked second in the MVC with a conference record of 4-1, but Drake could take that spot, and secure a bye in the conference tournament, with a win at home on Saturday night.

The Bulldogs have a chance to win the whole conference as well, but would need Edwardsville to fall to Loyola on Saturday as well.

“We’re in a good position to win the conference regular season, which would be great for us,” Whigham said. “This season has been pretty remarkable. We have one of the better records we’ve had in quite some time and we’re in a good spot to make some noise in the postseason.”

Women’s Soccer prepares for potential MVC championship run

4:00 PM


MVC Tournament

For the first time in nine years, the Bulldogs have earned a bye in the Missouri Valley Conference Women’s Soccer Championship by placing first in the regular season with an undefeated record of 4-0-2.

Having already been scheduled with a bye last week, the Bulldogs have 12 days between matches to prepare for the MVC tournament.

“It’s a perk for us to get these two weeks off while other teams are playing this week,” defender Ali Smith said. “We get to rest and refocus on what really matters.”

The Bulldogs will face off with no. 5 Loyola in the MVC Tournament semifinal match on Saturday. This match will be the second meeting between the two teams in three weeks. They played to a 0-0 draw on Oct. 17.

Even if they didn’t come out on top in their last meeting, the Bulldogs are still confident heading into the win-or-go-home matchup.

“We’re more excited than nervous, I would say,” junior Rebecca Rodgers said.

Even with the confidence, Drake can’t afford any mistakes. One loss and the whole season is over.

“We need to practice how we’re going to play,” Rodgers said. “We still need to have that game intensity.”

The winner of the match will face off against either no. 6 Evansville or no. 2 Northern Iowa in the finals.

The MVC champion will earn an automatic bid in the NCAA tournament, but the Bulldogs aren’t letting dreams of making it to the big dance cloud their focus on the match at hand.

“Focus on the MVC first, and then of course I can think about (the NCAA Tournament) later,” Rodgers said. “You just got to take it a game at a time.”

Seasonal Changes

The outlook for the Bulldogs season didn’t look good in August and September. They were outscored 13-1 in preseason matches for starters. They started the regular season at 2-1, but then lost six of their next seven matches.

It’s been in conference when Drake changed their mentality and started playing like a new team. The Bulldogs couldn’t win close games at the beginning of the season, but now they can’t seem to lose them. Three of Drake’s four conference wins came by a difference of just one goal, not to mention the two ties against UNI and Loyola.

“We definitely have a fight this year about us,” Horner said. “We’re not rattled by little things and we’re starting to do the little things right and those are adding up.”

Horner is the only coach who was a part of the ’06 Bulldogs’ championship team, and she was only an assistant at the time. Of course, none of the players were around at the time either. The oldest Drake player – senior Mariah Boncek – was only 13 years old at the time.

And even if the team is unrecognizable as compared to the last no. 1 Bulldogs squad, they are still a very different team than they have been in recent history. The Bulldogs only had three conference wins in the past two seasons combined. They already have four in 2015.

“Our chemistry this year has been a lot better than the past two years. I feel like that definitely plays a role in how well we’ve been doing,” Rodgers said. “The freshmen have definitely stepped up and our upperclassmen have stepped up as well.”

Bulldogs’ Offense

Rodgers has been the star of the Bulldogs this season, especially since conference competitions began. She leads the MVC in shots (54), points (21) and goals (9). Six of her goals and 13 of her points have come against MVC opponents, both marks leading the conference as well.

And even if she has dominated the stat sheets this season, head coach Lindsey Horner believes that the Bulldogs won’t have to solely rely on her talents to carry them through the conference tournament.

“We have other players that can step up and play off of (Rodgers) that are capable of scoring goals as well,” Horner said.

One of those players will be freshman Alyssa Brand, who has played impressively in her first season of college soccer.

Brand has five goals this season, the second-most on the team. However, as Rodgers’s play picked up, Brand has tapered off. Brand hasn’t scored since Sept. 22 versus Creighton.

With tougher opponents ahead that will probably be strategizing against Rodgers, Brand may be called on more to deliver in front of the net.

A player who may be instrumental in creating those goals this weekend will be junior midfielder Kayla Armstrong. She leads the Bulldogs with four assists and takes many of the team’s corner kicks, giving her plenty of opportunities to find Brand and Rodgers in the box for goals.

Drake’s Defense

The Bulldogs’ defense has been cause for worry this season. They’ve given up too many goals in the early minutes of matches and forced their offense to play from behind, which can make scoring goals more difficult.

“I think at the beginning of the season things didn’t go our way and we ended up losing games,” Horner said. “Now fast-forward a month … we’ve become more resilient. We’ve learned our lessons from those games.”

Those lessons learned have lead to sharpened defensive play in recent weeks. Goalkeeper Brooke Dennis has only surrendered three goals in the last five conference matches. She earned an unprecedented three consecutive MVC Goalkeeper of the Week awards in October.

“I don’t think we’ll have any sort of mental lapses … now that it’s down to the wire. We lose and our season is over,” Smith said. “We’re pretty tuned into the goal, which is an MVC Championship.”