If there was one term to describe the 2021 Northwestern women’s soccer (6-6-1, 9th in B1G) season, it would be “roller coaster.” The Wildcats’ season was filled with amazing highs, like convincing wins over Indiana (6-4-1, 5th in B1G) and Iowa (2-8-1, 12th in B1G), and hard lows, including finishing ninth in the conference after losing their final two regular season games. In a season that’s been anything but predictable, there was no telling what the ’Cats were capable of in postseason play; would they go far or would they fizzle out early?
Simply put: kind of both.
Northwestern played their postseason berth last two games in the Big Ten Tournament: a gritty 1-0 win over Purdue (4-5-2, 10th in B1G) in the play-in round, and a rough loss to Wisconsin (6-3-2, 4th in B1G) in penalty kicks. After tying the Badgers 1-1 over regulation and extra time, the ’Cats were unable to keep up in the box, losing the shootout 4-2.
In their efforts, Northwestern was led by senior midfielder Regan Steigleder, who scored her team-leading fourth goal of the season against Purdue to give the ’Cats their 1-0 victory and converted in the team’s penalty kicks against Wisconsin. Also starring for Northwestern was junior goalkeeper Mackenzie Wood, who recorded five saves in the shutout victory against Purdue and two saves in 110 minutes against the Badgers.
The first game was a gritty affair between two of the Big Ten’s middling squads, as Northwestern and Purdue traded blows and shots throughout the game. Despite the final result, it was the Boilermaker special at first, with Purdue absolutely dominating the pace of play in the first half with eight shots; in comparison, Northwestern had zero first-half chances. The ’Cats could not get anything going in their offensive zone, and for the first 45 minutes, it looked like the season could be on the brink.
Coming back out in the second half, however, Northwestern began to match the Boilermakers’ every move and shot, and even pulled off some decent chances in their zone, pushing the ball into the Purdue box. In the 67th minute, a pass across the box led to a Purdue handball, setting up a penalty shot for the ’Cats: Steigleder didn’t miss the opportunity, scoring the game-winning goal.
The game wasn’t over for the ’Cats yet, however, as Purdue would strike back with a vengeance, with two shots on net coming immediately after the penalty kick. Wood, however, put the team on her back with two saves, including a jaw-dropping punchout of a snipe over the crossbar:
The ’Cats moved on to face Wisconsin two days later, in a battle for Big Ten supremacy and the chance to prove themselves on a national level, perhaps even earning an NCAA nod. Unlike the Purdue match, Northwestern came out dominating against the Badgers, outshooting Wisconsin 9-1 in the first half and proving dominant in their own end, with four shots on net. It paid off for the ’Cats, who took their first lead of the game on a strike from sophomore Lily Gilbertson in the 37th minute:
The Badgers, however, soon matched the ’Cats in the second half, and quickly tied up the score in the 57th minute on a goal by Cameron Murtha, who headed the ball in on a long kick from outside the box. Following the highlight, Wisconsin and Northwestern engaged in a dramatic gridlock that saw neither team record a shot on goal, including the 20 minutes of extra time. With no winner, the elimination game moved to the most exciting sequence in sports: penalty kicks.
Despite jumping out to a 1-0 lead on a beautiful shot to the left by Steigleder, Northwestern was stopped dead in their tracks by Wisconsin senior keeper Jordyn Bloomer, who made two critical saves on Gilbertson and junior midfielder Chloe McGhee, giving the Badgers the clear edge in PKs. Despite Wood’s best efforts, she was unable to match her counterpart, and Wisconsin left the pitch with a 4-2 win in PKs.
In complete honesty, there’s not much here to analyze beyond what’s already been written. Northwestern played two fantastic, gritty games against programs that had bested them in the regular season (Purdue beat them 1-0 on March 13 and Wisconsin bested them at home 1-0 on March 18). Northwestern saw fantastic play from their forwards Steigleder and Gilbertson, and the defense held strong around Wood. This team is a fringe contender who just ran into a hot goalie in Wisconsin’s Bloom.
With 6 wins on the season and some gritty performances in the Big Ten, the ’Cats will now await to hear if they have been selected as an at-large bid for the 2021 NCAA tournament. Even if they’re not chosen, Northwestern should be insanely proud of the season they put together in the difficult circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, and look to next fall with optimism.
Always good to start on the right foot again.