STORY BY ADAM ROGAN
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”