A brisk fall breeze, a packed Mediacom Stadium and a women’s soccer Missouri Valley Conference championship game on the line set the stage for a riveting final between two powerhouse teams on Nov. 5. On one side of the pitch stood the Drake Bulldogs, a team that held the best conference record in the MVC at 8-1-1 and an all-time program high number of wins with 13 total. Across the pitch stood the Valparaiso Beacons, a team that struggled in the MVC with a 3-3-4 conference record but managed an 11-6-6 overall record.
Drake had defeated Valpairaso earlier in the regular season by a score of 2-1. Since that loss, Valpairaso had gone 6-2 and had punched their ticket to the championship game after winning all three of their MVC Tournament games. On paper, the Bulldogs were the favorites to win the matchup and secure a spot at the NCAA Tournament.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, Valparaiso’s defense had learned from their past meeting — in which they allowed Drake to score two goals — and would shut down the Bulldogs offense for the majority of the game. In fact, Drake managed only four shots on goal in the championship against Valparaiso — their lowest total since their previous matchup against Valparaiso in early October.
The Drake defense came to play as well, allowing Valparaiso just four shots on target as well. The clash of these two stout defenses lead to a scoreless game through the first 80 minutes of play. In the 82nd minute, Valparaiso’s Allie Anderson scored a go-ahead goal, putting Valparaiso on top 1-0. Despite a more aggressive playstyle in the final eight minutes of play, Drake failed to respond, resulting in a Valparaiso championship victory.
After the game, Drake head coach Lindsey Horner did her best to keep the team’s focus on how far they made it, despite the final result.
“It was a heartbreaking loss, and while we were waiting for the MVC trophy ceremony, I pulled the team together,” Horner said. “No coach looks forward to talking to the team when they’re that sad and disappointed, but I just told them that I was so proud of them and that when the hurt from this game wears away, I hope they can focus on all they did accomplish this season.”
Despite the loss, Drake managed to perform exceptionally well this season. Between having the best record in the MVC, matching their all-time record number of winsand securing a championship visit, the team had far more success in 2023 than failure.
According to Horner, a good portion of the team’s success can be attributed to the selflessness of the players and the relationships in the locker room that were curated over the course of the season.
“Our players have such a passion for competing and love of the sport, but they also really enjoy spending time with each other,” Horner said. “We have a team full of great teammates that, regardless of their role or playing time, they wanted what was best for the team.”
Layla Kelbel, a sophomore forward on the team who started 18 games this season (tied for third on the roster), also explained that the team’s success can be attributed to those relationships.
“I think it helped, just being so close as a team,” Kelbel said. “Last spring we all worked really hard together off the field, after practice and in the weight room, and I think that helped this fall.”
With the 2023 season wrapped up, the Drake women’s soccer team is already beginning to look towards the future and is planning to make another run for the MVC championship and an NCAA Tournament spot.
“Our staff took a day and a half off but went right back to signing day, then recruiting at a big national event this weekend. The transfer portal opens on Monday,” Horner said. “Recruiting never stops at this level, and we are so motivated to get into the NCAA Tournament that we will keep pushing forward.”
The Bulldogs made five new acquisitions on national signing day: forward Isabella Balsley, midfielder Claire Emmerich, defender Hannah Renz, defender Izzy Snowden and goalkeeper Kate Hopma.