On Sept. 25, the IUPUI women’s soccer team concluded their regular season with a 2-0 win over their in-state rival, Purdue Fort Wayne. The win secured the Jags the two seed and a first-round bye in the Horizon League tournament.
Despite an outstanding regular season performance, the Jags enter the tournament as underdogs to Milwaukee, who have won the last five Horizon League championships. IUPUI knows a thing or two about being underdogs. IUPUI came into the season ranked sixth out of eleven teams in the preseason poll, but massively overperformed those expectations.
Senior forward Sam Slimak in an interview after Wednesday’s game commented on the team’s underdog mindset.
“It's more fun being the underdogs and proving who we are as a team,” Sam Slimak said. “Honestly, every single person makes an impact. Not just the eleven starters, not just the subs. It's every girl that's injured and on the bench and cheering and supporting in any way that's definitely made our team get so far.”
When the Jaguars and the league-leading Milwaukee Panthers faced off in the regular season, the Jaguars put the Panthers to their greatest test. IUPUI’s two goals in the game were the most goals that the Panthers allowed to a single team in conference play. Still, the Jaguars were unable to take the victory as they allowed two goals to an aggressive Panthers attacking front, to draw 2-2.
Senior defender Alex Stocker speaks on what the Jags need to do to defeat the defending champion Panthers in the postseason.
“I'm confident in our ability to score more goals once we get to that game,” Stocker said. “I think [we will need to] defend very hard, as we have been. They're a very fast opponent who's a very strong side. But I think, if we could hammer at them first, get on their backs every time they touch the ball, and just outwork them, then I think that we'll be fine.”
Before that rematch can take place, IUPUI will have to take on the three seeded Northern Kentucky Norse in the semifinals. In the regular season, the Norse and Jaguars fought to a 1-1 draw in the first conference game of the season. After the game, Slimak expressed how she was pleased with how the team battled back from a goal deficit early in the match.
"Going down a goal early was tough - we were playing with some good intensity," Slimak said. "I thought everyone played with a lot of grit and we battled against a solid team. I'm very proud of [Emma Antoine] and how hard she works. It was a good first conference game, getting a point on the road, but we are ready to keep building off of it.”
Over a month and a half later, things have changed. Both teams have faced adversity, and each has lost a conference match. The teams are introduced to a new challenge - the chilly Milwaukee weather. The forecasted temperature at kickoff for the semifinal match is 47 degrees, which will be the coldest game that the Jaguars have played this season. With their first-round bye, the Jaguars will have a few extra rest days, which they will be taking full advantage of.
Stocker provided insight into how the Jags were getting ready for the chilly weather.
“Recovery will be a big thing,” Stocker said. “Just making sure our bodies are nice and dressing warm. Taking those days off that we have there, recovering well. We're going to head up on Wednesday to train there, so we're just making sure our body is moving. Lauren's been a great help this year. We have a lot of people who go see her, obviously for injuries or just trying to be good, but she's been a really big help this year, so it’s just about taking care of our bodies.”
The key factor in Thursday’s semifinal game will be defense. Both Northern Kentucky and IUPUI lead the Horizon League in the fewest goals allowed per game, with both teams allowing less than a goal each game. That feat can be attributed to a young backline and goalkeeper connection that has stepped up over the course of the season.
After junior goalkeeper Ashton Kudlo got injured against Milwaukee on Oct. 15, sophomore keeper Cailynn Junk stepped up in IUPUI’s final two games. Junk racked up 10 saves while allowing zero goals over the two-game stretch, which gave Junk back-to-back Defensive Player of the Week awards.
Slimak also commended the defense and their development, specifically highlighting sophomore defenders Kailyn Smith and Sarah Henson.
“Kailyn Smith has been awesome all season,” Slimak said. “Most games, 90 minutes she's put out the work there, and she's just generally really grown as a leader, I would say. I'm honestly so proud of her. And then I'm really proud of the freshmen. They're back with her because they really stepped up and gained new confidence, and I'm really proud of all of them and how they've come in their first year and just shined. Sarah also got moved back there, and she's done awesome. It's a new position for her and she's worked her butt off.”
For Slimak and Stocker, this is their final season. Slimak expressed the significance of this year’s performance.
“I think we all have wanted this for all four years,” Slimak said. “Missing our freshman year from COVID, we were just ready to make a difference and make an impact, and we're really excited just to see how far we can go.”
Nathan Ensley is a sophomore majoring in Informatics. He is a photographer and writer for The Campus Citizen with a focus on sports and campus.