Oles falter on the road, drop third straight

Two weeks ago, St. Olaf women’s soccer appeared to be the highlight of an otherwise underwhelming fall sports season. Three consecutive convincing victories against Gustavus, Concordia and Hamline netted the Oles valuable momentum and put them in a great position within the conference, encouraging thoughts of the postseason before October even began.

New head coach Rachael Sushner seemed to have ushered in a new era of dominance for women’s soccer at St. Olaf, emphasizing a combination of teamwork and positive reinforcement that transformed a 4-10-4 2015 squad into a perennial conference threat capable of beating any opponent despite even the most unnerving odds.

However, since the beginning of October the Oles have looked less inspiring, losing matches this past week against St. Thomas and St. Catherine that extended their recent season-high losing streak to three. St. Olaf remains a fringe playoff contender, but they haven’t been able to manufacture wins against the conference’s more fearsome rivals the way they consistently did in September. These contests were crucial in determining where the Oles stood within the conference and whether or not they could topple the titans of the MIAC. St. Olaf has played competitively through all the losses and their enormous spirit remains, but dropping three conference matches in a row is a harsh blow in the middle of an otherwise optimistic season.

Heading to St. Thomas in an attempt to upset the undefeated, conference-leading Tommies is a daunting task for any team, but the Oles almost managed to pull it off when the two squared off on Oct. 5. The contest remained extremely tense through the majority of regulation until St. Thomas’ Brie Bourdage broke the scoreless tie in the 67th minute of play. That single goal would be the deciding factor in the match, more than enough leeway for Tommie goalkeeper Tarynn Theiling, who leads the conference with a .963 save percentage.

The Oles tried their best to break past their opponent’s iron defense, attempting eight total shots on goal with seven different players, but they ultimately failed to outgun Theiling, essentially a black hole at the keeper position. St. Olaf played well considering the difficult circumstances, but ended up taking a heartbreaking 1-0 loss against the still undefeated Tommies.

Next up was another tough road contest against St. Catherine on Oct. 8, where St. Olaf’s defense faltered late against a relentless offense that managed 11 total shots on goal. After a scoreless first half, the Wildcats finally struck with a goal in the 53rd minute. True to form, the Oles quickly countered with a score of their own by Abby Stets ’18, her team-leading fifth goal of the season. Ole goalkeeper Julie Johnson ’19 performed admirably throughout the match, making nine saves to keep St. Olaf in the match despite being forced to keep their backs to the wall on defense for the majority of the contest. Eventually, one of St. Kate’s seven corners was converted into a goal by Nicole Palsgrove in the 79th minute, the final dagger in an eventual 2-1 loss for the Oles. The defeat was St. Olaf’s fifth on the season and fourth loss by a margin of one goal.

Beating either of these opponents would have assured St. Olaf’s place among the conference’s best, but instead they are now left to wonder what might have been. Three straight losses by a margin of one goal hurts the morale of any team, but the Oles had a realistic chance to take the MIAC by storm by shocking St. Thomas or St. Catherine with a monumental upset, making the losses all the more bitter.

Still, the Oles have nothing to hang their heads about. They played two talented teams and managed to persistently compete with both of them up until the final whistle; they kept pace with the best of their rivals. Disregarding the losses, that’s something to be proud of, and it encourages optimism for the remainder of the season and beyond.

St. Olaf currently sits at 6-5, clinging to the sixth and final playoff spot in the conference. The team will try to regroup at home against last place St. Mary’s this Saturday, a contest that it is favored to win and one that should help to gain back its confidence heading into what’s sure to be a fierce showdown with archrival Carleton on October 22.

The Knights are currently seventh in the conference, nipping at St. Olaf’s heels in hopes to swipe away their playoff spot. The fate of that match could very well decide who moves on to the postseason and who gets eliminated early – tensions always run high in the crosstown rivalry, but this match is sure to be an exceptionally vicious contest that is now practically a must-win for the Oles.