After suffering back-to-back 1-0 home losses to New Hampshire and Albany on Oct. 10 and 14, respectively, the University of Maine women’s soccer team’s postseason America East aspirations were in jeopardy.
But Maine’s 1-0 win over Hartford on Seniors Day on Oct. 17 and Binghamton’s 2-1 loss to Stony Brook in the last regular-season conference game enabled the Black Bears to land the sixth and final seed for the playoffs.
And now they are one win away from earning their first NCAA Tournament berth after upsetting No. 3 Hartford 1-0 and No. 2 Stony Brook 3-1 on the road in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively.
Twelfth-year head coach Scott Atherley and his 9-8 Black Bears will take on 15-5 Boston University, the top seed and defending three-time champ, in Saturday’s 1 p.m. final on Nickerson Field in Boston. BU has 12 consecutive shutout wins, tying it for the fourth longest shutout streak in NCAA history.
Atherley said in the middle of the season, his team was “pressing a little too hard because they knew they had to win their home games. There was a sense of urgency and it disrupted how we were playing.”
“But once we qualified for the tournament, our mentality has been much more relaxed,” he said.
Senior striker Hannah Breton explained that once the Bears stopped being obsessed with winning and began focusing on playing up to their potential, they relaxed and played their best soccer.
“We had to concentrate on playing our best and enjoying the game,” said Breton. “We learned a lot from our losses.”
Atherley said his team turned in two quality performances in 2-1 and 2-0 losses to Stony Brook and BU, respectively, to end the regular season and they have played even better in the playoffs.
“Our playoff win over Stony Brook was our best game of the year,” he said.
“We were underdogs going into the playoffs, so we figured we had nothing to lose,” said junior striker Carolyne Nellis, who had two goals against Stony Brook. “These have been our best two games of the season. We have been able to keep possession of the ball and we’ve been communicating better. We’re playing with more confidence and composure. And we’re having fun.”
Atherley added, “We must have had 70 percent of the possession against Stony Brook. So we didn’t have to chase them.”
“We finally settled in to how we needed to play before the last two (regular-season) games, despite the outcomes,” said junior center back Kaitlyn MacIsaac. “We just needed to produce goals.”
And they have in the playoffs.
“Our freshmen and sophomores have played some of the best games of their lives,” said MacIsaac.
Seven freshmen and sophomores have been starting.
Breton said the young players have “worked real hard and they understand what we’re working toward.”
MacIsaac also said when Stony Brook beat Binghamton to supply the Bears with the sixth seed, it energized them.
Breton said, “We’ve been connecting and performing at a level we knew we could. Everybody has showed up to play (their best). It takes just one person not performing (well) to bring the team performance down.”
Gorham midfielder Kelsey Wilson, an All-America East second-team choice, has been pacing the attack with a team-high eight goals and 18 points. She has two assists. Freshman Lisa Bijman (2 goals, 0 assists) has filled an important role as a holding (defensive) midfielder and was chosen to the AE All-Rookie Team.
MacIsaac, who has an assist, anchors a youthful back line that includes sophomore center back Stephanie Frenette-Blais (0 & 1) and freshman outside backs Maggie Malone (1 & 1) and Meaghan Bradica.
Sophomore Maddie Hill (2 & 1) joins Bijman and Wilson in the midfield.
Breton (2 & 1) is joined up front by freshman Nikki Misener (0 & 4) and Nellis (4 & 2).
Sophomore Meagan Price-Leibenzeder has been solid in net with a 1.14 goals-against average and a .761 save percentage.
“Meagan has made some big saves the last two games,” said Atherley.
The Black Bears respect Boston University but won’t be intimidated by the Terriers.
“We’re going to be very aggressive and attack them both offensively and defensively,” said Atherley. “I think teams sometimes give BU a little too much respect. We have nothing to lose.”
He noted that they generated some good scoring opportunities against BU in their regular-season matchup despite the 23-7 BU edge in shots at goal.
“If we play like we did against Stony Brook and Hartford, we’ll definitely have a shot to beat them,” said Nellis. “We played very well against BU.”
Breton said things could be interesting if they can score first.
“They haven’t had to deal with being down in a game (in a long time),” said Breton. “We could put them in panic mode.”
MacIsaac added, “We have a chance to make history (by winning and going to the NCAA tournament) and that makes us excited and eager to get down there.”