Meg Boade sprints down the sideline. Boade was a leader on the field this season as the Wildcats fought to stay in the tournament hunt. Photo by AJ Anderson/North by Northwestern.

In a precarious nighttime game, Northwestern women’s soccer (9-5-4, 3-5-2 B1G) warmed up to contest against Minnesota (7-6-4, 3-5-2 B1G) for its regular season home finale – with a heavy chance of rain and defeat.

Historically, the odds were not in favor of the ’Cats. The Golden Gophers had accumulated a 19-10-2 advantage over the course of 31 all-time games against Northwestern. Minnesota had also fortified a strong backline in their most recent 15 season games, allowing only 12 goals against compared to Northwestern’s sizable 18 goals against. Still, entering their 32nd showdown, the two teams were eye-to-eye, matched with an even 2-4-2 record in Big Ten play, leaving the door open for the ’Cats to hunt down a crucial victory.

Northwestern started its first half on the wrong foot. The team’s customary Tiki-taka style, characterized by quick, one-touch possession, was disrupted by haphazard play. The ’Cats seemed to not only be battling against Minnesota but also the rain – whose wet conditions exacerbated imprecise passes and exposed an utter lack of communication between players. As the old saying goes, “cats and water don’t mix.”

Amidst high pressure and physicality from Minnesota third-year forward Khyah Harper, the ’Cats were eroding on the defensive end. Minnesota fired a barrage of shots at Northwestern second-year goalkeeper Reiley Fitzpatrick who, in a decisive save, deflected a ball mere inches from the net that pounded the crossbar with a thunderous warning in the seventh minute. Northwestern was struggling to secure its footing, but soon the tide began to change.

“Make sure you’re more connected to me,” voiced graduate defender Danika Austin to fourth-year defender Nicole Douccette while strategically motioning to switch the ball through the backline. Firm leadership from its veteran players was exactly what Northwestern needed.

With the ’Cats defense newly secured as a cohesive unit, the team could begin their attack. Northwestern’s efficient switches to either side of the pitch started to create more width and space for their forwards to charge down the sidelines, opening up a corner kick opportunity just 11 minutes into the game. Fourth-year midfielder Meg Boade, poised at the helm, sailed a beautifully-placed ball into the box that fell to the feet of second-year midfielder Caterina Regazzoni to nonchalantly tap it home for her third goal of the season.

Unexpectedly, the one-goal advantage did not tilt the balance in favor of the ’Cats. Minnesota quickly retook control of the game, slipping behind Northwestern’s defense and firing another three shots at net, though to no avail. Sporting her iconic blue hair wrap, third-year defender Emma Phillips denied any attacking attempts made by the Gophers, sweeping the field with her clean slide tackles and assertive headers, putting her entire body on the line.

Eventually, Phillips would prove to be more than a defender. With just four seconds left in the first half, Phillips snuck behind Minnesota’s backline to redirect a lofted free kick from Boade into the bottom right net, notching her seventh goal of the season and expanding the gap to a secure 2-0 lead at the end of the first-half.

To match the nature of their black (NU) and white (UMN) jerseys, the two teams adopted starkly contrasting styles of play entering the second half. The ’Cats dominated the pitch, tiring the Golden Gophers’ midfield with patient possession. Meanwhile, Minnesota gambled on long, hopeful balls toward their high-positioned forwards which, to their dismay, were frequently blocked.

To the spectators’ surprise, with eight minutes left in the second half, the ball found itself in the back of Northwestern’s net after a discombobulated scuffle between both teams in the box, alleviating the sting of two conceded goals for the Gophers. But the relief was only temporary. The referee’s ruling denied the Minnesota goal under the condition of offsides, eliciting theatrical gestures of frustration from the team. The ’Cats had weathered the storm.

When it rained, it poured for Minnesota. In the 88th minute, Northwestern’s clearance of a Minnesota corner kick sent fourth-year midfielder Josie Aulicino into a foot race to downfield. With the entire Golden Gophers backline behind her, nothing but graduate goalkeeper Megan Plaschko (frantically backpedaling) and yards of space stood between Aulicino and the empty net. However, who would arrive first, Plaschko or the ball? Aulicino quelled all suspense when she launched a majestic shot over the goalkeeper’s head, landing the ball gracefully in the net for her fifth goal of the year, increasing Northwestern’s score to 3-0. The commentator deemed the goal “the cherry on top.”

Upon the conclusive sound of the referee’s whistle, Northwestern had sealed an applaudable 3-0 win to keep their Big Ten tournament and NCAA tournament hopes aflame. Largely thanks to Boade who tallied her 13th and 14th assists of the season (the second-most in the country), Northwestern tallied three goals in a game for the eighth time this year.

Unfortunately, this victory was not enough to secure a position in the Big Ten tournament as the ’Cats would fall to Rutgers (9-6-3, 5-4-1 B1G) on Sunday, Oct. 22, just missing the eight-team tournament by one slot and extinguishing their season.

Though Northwestern suffered a curtailed end to its arduous season, the team deserves to celebrate their resounding success at the start, having powered through their first nine games without a single loss. An unfortunate showdown with Michigan (7-6-4, 3-5-2 B1G) derailed Northwestern for its subsequent four losses, but the ’Cats clawed back on their feet in time for three important matches against Big Ten teams. All throughout, Northwestern’s players individually broke school records and raised in national rankings, urging us to not let their final game define the entire season.

Thumbnail photo by AJ Anderson/North by Northwestern.