This Season is Over, But the Good Times are Just Beginning
TAMPA - When the conflict was finally over as the Blue Demons had defiantly stood their ground in a hostile environment and remained undaunted in the 85-degree heat, don't feel bad that they lost 1-0 to USF Thursday night in their very first Big East Championship match.
Certainly some tears were shed now that USF (9-7-3) is advancing to the quarterfinals to face Notre Dame (14-3-1) on Sunday, and there was the remorse from Shannon Williams, Tara Strickland, Callie Hemming and Arianna Foster about shots that might have resulted in a DePaul splash party.
There was talk that if this young team that had turned a losing program completely upside-down had emerged victorious Thursday night---this collection of fun-loving characters was jumping in the hotel pool, uniforms and all.
That might have rivaled the splash they made this year in the BIG EAST and all across the country, this sports sorority of sisters who had been picked to finish last in the National Division back in early August and wound up upsetting then-No. 11 Missouri 1-0 and then-No. 22 Georgetown 2-1 in double overtime.
Instead, with a demanding yet encouraging coach named Erin Chastain filling their heads with hope and promise, these Blue Demons confounded the experts and qualified for their first BIG EAST tournament.
That it ended here with USF's leading scorer Chelsea Klotz taking advantage of a defensive lapse and scoring the winning goal at the 83-minute, 50-second mark of this taut and tingly drama in no way diminishes what this turnaround season was all about.
When DePaul (10-9-2) couldn't load up with the nation's top recruits who gravitate towards the elite programs, the Blue Demons resorted to outfighting and outhustling teams with an edge in talent.
It was the same on this humid night as Williams unleashed a shot that was just a few feet wide. With less than three minutes remaining, Strickland attempted a free kick from nearly 50 yards away.
Sure, she's been remarkable off set pieces all year---but from this distance?
"It was late, and all I could think of was scoring a goal for us," Strickland said. "Yes, I was aiming for the net."
Strickland's powerful left foot blasted a shot that was even more amazing for its accuracy. It sailed right at the heart of the USF goal, and only a leaping goalkeeper named Mallori Lofton-Malachi was able to barely tip it away.
Had that shot been just two or three inches higher...
"Tara is a special player, and what a wonderful year she had." Chastain said about the team leader in goals, assists and points. "She is technically so sound and set a great example for everyone on and off the field."
As the disappointment of losing her first BIG EAST playoff game slowly washed away, Chastain began to realize this was only the beginning.
That's why you shouldn't feel bad for a soccer program that will return 10 of 11 starters and also welcome back a talented sophomore forward named Casey Mercurio who sat out this season with an injury after starting every game as a freshman.
"This was definitely a turnaround team, and next year I think we'll be in the upper half of the BIG EAST and hopefully become an NCAA tournament team," Strickland said. "We came into this season in the best shape of our careers, got some great play from our freshmen and our seniors were awesome.
"Erin Chastain did a great job with making sure we set our standards high for one another. We didn't come here tonight happy just to be in the tournament. We came here to win and to keep on advancing in the tournament."
They will grow up, these three freshmen, three sophomores and four juniors, and they now know the importance of winning conference games to gain home-field advantage in the postseason.
"I am disappointed about tonight, but I'm also excited about the future," Chastain said. "There were so many firsts this season with our young team---our first BIG EAST tournament, our first wins over nationally ranked teams, our first win over Northwestern, our first BIG EAST Offensive Player of the Week (Strickland).
"This turnaround happened because these players worked so hard in the offseason and learned to believe in each other. This team had a wonderful chemistry and really connected with each other. I had a wonderful time coaching these young ladies.
"At the same time, I'm so glad our seniors went out having experienced a BIG EAST tournament. They have meant so much to us and given so much to the program. They are really going to be missed."
NOTES: In yet another first, this is the first time in the history of soccer at DePaul that both the men's and women's teams have made it to the postseason at the same time, and their first dual appearance in the BIG EAST Championship... Claire Hanold became the first female goalkeeper to record nine shutouts in a season... in Thursday's match, DePaul had 11 shots to 12 for USF with Klotz taking eight shots---five on goal... Morgan Celaya led DePaul with three shots while Strickland, Lauren Pagone and Williams had two apiece... Hanold made five saves and foiled a number of Klotz's attempts to score while Lofton-Malachi made four saves.