NewsLady Cougars Cap off Record Year with NCCAA National Title
written by Dave Parsons, Sports Information Director
MOUNT VERNON, Ohio - In only four short years, the Mount Vernon Nazarene University women's soccer team has gone from being a new varsity program in 2000 to claiming the school's first-ever soccer national title in 2003.
After compiling a successful 39-25-1 record through the team's first three years, the Lady Cougars set their sites on doing something special in 2003. The team had narrowly missed out on winning the American Mideast Conference South Division title in 2002, and the players and coaches alike were determined to take the next step.
"I am unsure how to put the feeling of this season into words," said MVNU head coach Jonathan Meade, who was named the AMC South Division Coach of the Year for the second straight season. "Saying that it was 'awesome' or 'great' just seems too little. When players and coaches begin working hard every day the day after the previous season ends to reach and strive for more and then have all the differing personalities, skill levels, and emotions all mesh together so perfectly to create what this team accomplished and experienced this season, 'awesome' is just not enough."
The season got off to an incredible start as MVNU won its first 11 matches to equal the longest winning streak in the program's brief history. During that stretch, the Lady Cougars won both the Nyack (N.Y.) College Invitational and the Spahr and Glenn Cougar Classic as MVNU defeated teams such as Trinity International (Ill.) University, Olivet Nazarene (Ill.) University, and Siena Heights (Mich.) University. The team also did not allow a goal until their ninth match of the season - an amazing span of 769 minutes and 41 seconds. In addition, MVNU received votes in the NAIA national poll for the first time ever and moved up as high as 26th in the September 30th poll.
The Lady Cougars finally had their winning streak snapped in a tough 1-0 loss to Malone College, who was receiving votes in the NAIA poll at the time. Following a scoreless double overtime tie with Saint Vincent (Pa.) College, MVNU dropped another hard-fought 1-0 decision at Indiana Wesleyan University, ranked 17th in that week's NAIA poll, as the team's record moved to 11-2-1.
The Lady Cougars returned to their winning ways in their next match as MVNU won its five remaining regular season matches with victories over Kenyon College, Ohio Dominican University, Tiffin University, Cedarville University, and Urbana University to finish with a 17-2-1 record. The team also captured its first-ever AMC South Division title with a 6-1-0 conference mark.
Next up for the team was its first-ever home NAIA postseason match as the Lady Cougars hosted Geneva (Pa.) College in the AMC/NAIA Region IX Tournament first round. After a 3-0 victory over the Golden Tornadoes, MVNU advanced to the NAIA Region IX Tournament Final Four for the second straight year. The Lady Cougars dropped a tough 3-2 decision to eventual region champion Malone in a match played in freezing weather on a snow-covered field at Houghton (N.Y.) College.
At that point, MVNU shifted its focus to the National Christian College Athletic Association national tournament in Kissimmee, Florida, where the team was the top seed in the eight-team field. The Lady Cougars posted identical 4-1 victories over eighth-seeded Bryan (Tenn.) College and fourth-seeded Olivet Nazarene in their first two matches to advance to the championship match for the first time. MVNU capped off its spectacular season fittingly with a 2-0 shutout of second-seeded Trinity International to claim the school's first NCCAA soccer national title.
"Winning the national championship was a phenomenal experience, and I am so proud of the team for seizing the opportunity that was given to them," said Meade. "The team played very well all year, but the entire team lifted its level of play to new heights at the national tournament."
"Coming into the season, I think the entire team knew we had the potential to do well, but a national championship really takes a lot of little things falling into place," Meade added. "We were a unified team early on in the season and the bond only grew stronger as the season progressed. We also had no season-ending injuries and were basically able to keep the same lineup and substitution rotation together from early on in the year. This was instrumental in our team play maturation over the entire season to the point of peaking at the end of the year. Lastly, each player realized her role on the team and put her best effort forward to excel in that role."
Defensively, the Lady Cougars put together an amazing year as the team allowed just 12 goals in 24 matches while posting a school-record 15 shutouts. Even in MVNU's three losses during the season, the Lady Cougars were only outscored by a total of three goals.
Seniors Cheryl Balogh and Karen Stasiowski, junior Sarah Helbert, and sophomore Leanna Goss anchored the team's back line success. Meanwhile, freshman goalkeeper Krysti Wilson started all 24 matches in goal and allowed just nine goals. She set new school records with 117 saves, 14 shutouts, and a 0.39 goals against average. Sophomore defender Audrey Hager added depth in the back, and goalkeepers Kristi Tuck, a senior, and junior Meghan Schymanski also contributed to the defensive effort.
"When I break the season down and think about the first month of play, the defense definitely comes to mind," said Meade. "We set a goal early in the season to become a better team defensively. As our young midfield learned our system and transitioned to the college game, our defense and goalkeeping gave us the opportunity to win all those matches. The leadership and playing experience of Cheryl, Karen, Sarah, and Leanna in the back really carried us early in the year and later propelled us into the championship."
The Lady Cougars also boasted a record-setting combination on the attack up front in sophomore forward Kristen Votapek and junior forward Catherine Hess. Votapek led all players in NAIA Region IX with 32 goals and 73 total points as she broke her own school records in both categories and also became the MVNU career leader with 58 goals and 134 total points. Hess was equally dangerous as she scored a career-high 19 goals and broke her own school record with an AMC South-leading 16 assists as she became the Lady Cougars' career assist leader with 35 and moved into second place with 43 career goals. Sophomore Holly Dyer also saw action up front.
"Besides our defense stepping up to a new level this season, our forwards were just as impressive," said Meade. "Most teams had no solution for Cat and Kristen this year, and their stats indicate that. They are both exceptional players with different strengths. It is difficult enough to try to stop one of them, but when they are using their strengths to help each other they give our team quite a powerful one-two punch up front. They are a lot of fun to watch and it is exciting to think that they still have another year to work together."
The midfield was a question mark for MVNU coming into the season with only seniors Lisa Hinman (six goals and six assists) and Sarah Rinehart (one goal) returning with any substantial game experience there. Freshmen Katie Farver (four goals and two assists), Jessica Ward (three goals and four assists), Allison Linak (three goals and six assists), and Laural Lautensack (one goal) each contributed heavily as they played in every match. Freshmen Lindsay See (two goals and three assists) and Dana Detty (one goal and one assist), senior Katrina Iles (two goals), and sophomore Bethany Rockwell also added depth to the midfield.
"I knew that we could get by for awhile early in the season by having experienced defenders and frontrunners, but that the midfielders would have to come through if we were to go deep into the postseason," said Meade. "With the steady play of Lisa and Sarah, the young midfielders embraced all the learning, adjustments, and frustrations that come from transitioning into the college ranks and made this team solid in all areas. They did the not so glamorous things well like winning balls in the air, defending, and playing simple on the attack. What was an area of concern at the beginning of the season because of the amount of youth became a source of strength by the end of the year."
MVNU will lose six seniors from this year's squad who helped the team post a 59-28-2 record during their careers. However, with eight starters and seven other experienced players returning, the Lady Cougars will look to add to the program's winning tradition in 2004.
"Winning 20 matches, a conference championship, and a national title are things that none of us will soon forget," said Meade. "They are wonderful memories, but there was so much more that made this season culminate into something so much more than words can describe. Memories of teammates laughing so hard together they can barely breathe, reading letters from Gator (MVNU player Jessi Gates) and praying for her safety and quick return from Iraq, praying together before matches and singing praise songs after matches, parents driving everywhere to cheer us on, teammates crying together or lifting each other up, and the usual daily grind with this group never being usual. They all make this championship season truly a season to be proud of."