CLAREMONT, CA: Returning from a two-year absence from being the head coach of the Pomona-Pitzer Women's Soccer Team, Jen Scanlon firmly held onto one big dream: this was the year.
"Back in August when we first started preseason camp, it was very clear to me that we had all the right pieces in place to make this a special season" said head Coach Jen Scanlon.
While the Sagehens did not take the most orthodox of routes to get there, the end result was nonetheless exceptional as the team etched their names into program history by reaching two new milestones: SCIAC Tournament Champions and NCAA Tournament Round of 32 participants. In a roller coaster season filled with trials and triumphs at every stretch, a lucky break on Halloween was the start of a run that would bring the program to new heights and forge a future as bright as the L.A. sun over only two short weeks.
The Sagehens' season would start off on the rocky side, going 2-4 through their first six matches including back to back 1-0 losses on the road to Whittier and CMS to open SCIAC play. However there were still positives to be taken away from the early struggles, most notably the 3-1 victory over current Sweet 16 participant Hardin-Simmons just two days after losing to #2 Trinity (TX) 1-0.
"We definitely would've liked to have gotten off to a little bit of a better start than 2-4" said Scanlon. "But I think that the early struggles helped us establish a clear identity and have that necessary growth towards becoming the team we were at the end of the season."
Facing their worst start since 2012, Pomona-Pitzer responded in remarkable fashion, posting a 7-0 victory over defending SCIAC Champion Redlands that served as the catalyst for a six-match winning streak that propelled the Sagehens from last place to first place in the conference. Led by Danika Bethune and Alyssa Kim's combined 27 points (Kim – 17; Bethune - 10), the Sagehen offense caught fire during the winning streak netting 23 goals over the six matches. However, the Hens' rapid rise to the top of SCIAC standings faded just as fast as it came, as a tough 1-0 home loss to then second place Claremont-Mudd-Scripps on an 86th minute goal started a three game skid that dropped Pomona-Pitzer down to third place with three league games remaining.
While a 3-1 victory over La Verne in the October 24th home finale would snap the losing streak and put Pomona-Pitzer on the cusp of a SCIAC Tournament berth needing only a victory over Cal Lutheran in the season's penultimate game, the Sagehens were unable to overcome two second half goals by the Regals en route to a 3-1 loss. Remaining in 3rd place in the SCIAC but only now one point ahead of 4th place Cal Lutheran and Whittier at 21, the Sagehens' season all came down to their final match on the road against last place Chapman.
Looking to finally break out of their two week slump and clinch a SCIAC Tournament berth, the Hens wasted no time taking control of the match with goals by Danika Bethune and Abby Onderwyzer Gold in the first 17 minutes while limiting Chapman to only three first half shots to take a 2-0 lead into half. However, the Panthers did not go away quietly, scoring three goals in 22 minutes (58', 67', & 80') to jump ahead 3-2 before an exceptional goal from Bethune in the 85' would send the game to overtime and keep the Hens' postseason hopes alive. While limiting Chapman to only two shots during the two overtime periods, Pomona-Pitzer was unable to net the game winner to tie the Panthers 3-3 and subsequently leave their fate in the hands of Cal Lutheran and Whittier, both playing later that evening.
Stuck watching computer screens back in Claremont and already witnessing Cal Lutheran lock up a playoff spot with their 2-1 win over La Verne, the Sagehens finally got the break they needed: a 0-0 tie in 2OT between Whittier and CMS that gave Pomona-Pitzer the 4th and final seed in the SCIAC Postseason Tournament.
"With us already having the opportunity to clinch a postseason spot twice that week and not coming through in either, it was a huge sense of relief once that match ended at Whittier" said Scanlon. "While it certainly wasn't the prettiest way to get there, we finally had our foot in the door and as we've seen year after year in the SCIAC Tournament anything can happen once you're in it."
Reaching the SCIAC Postseason Tournament for the fifth consecutive season, the Hens' semifinal match would see them take the road to face off against regular season champion Redlands who with 2015 SCIAC Player of the Year Savannah Laursen finished the season a red hot 6-1 in their final seven matches. With a 1-5-1 record on the road in SCIAC play, a 1-4-1 record in their last six matches of the season, and a slew of injuries hampering key players, the odds did not appear in Pomona-Pitzer's favor as they took the trip down I-10 on an uncharacteristically cold Thursday for early November.
With a type of magic that only sports can truly capture, two plays only two minutes apart changed the entire trajectory of the Sagehens' season, bringing a remarkable degree of hope and exhilaration to a situation that appeared to have so little of it to the naked eye. While the two squads were evenly matched in the early going, Redlands earned a great scoring opportunity in the 28th minute with a penalty kick off a Sagehen handball in the box. However, a remarkable save by Goalkeeper Annie Wedel that saw her use every inch of her body to block the Redlands shot just inside the right post kept the match locked at 0-0. Less than two minutes later, another Sagehen handball in the box gave the Bulldogs another excellent scoring opportunity to break open a tight match. Wedel came up huge for the Hens once again, making a diving save to the left post this time to stave off the Bulldogs attack and send the Sagehen faithful into a frenzy.
Wedel's heroics set the stage for the unusual sequence of events in the 40th minute that saw an awkward bounce off a Lindsay Mooradian deflect off the Redlands goalkeeper directly Sara Sherburne who then passed it to Peri Cuppens just outside the box leading to a slow-rolling shot that beat two Bulldog defenders guarding the open net to put the Sagehens up 1-0. Led by fantastic second half defensive performances from Nadia Alaiyan and Corey Goelz, Pomona-Pitzer would hold Redlands scoreless to upset the first-seeded Bulldogs 1-0 and advance to the SCIAC Tournament Championship Game for the first time since 2012. With Cal Lutheran defeating CMS 2-1 in the other Semifinal match, the Regals' high-powered offensive attack was all that was left standing between the Hens and their first SCIAC Postseason title in program history.
Playing in front of a packed house at William Roland Stadium where the Hens were winless at since 2009, the first 45 minutes saw both squads muster only four combined shots on goal as both defenses dominated the early going. The momentum permanently shifted in the Sagehens' favor however in the 65th minute when off of a deflected pass that settled next to her outside the 18, Abby Onderwyzer Gold maneuvered her way past three Regal defenders with fancy footwork and beat Regals Keeper Coral Hasley with a shot just inside the left post to give the Hens a 1-0 lead. While Cal Lutheran would generate a multitude of great chances over the last 25 minutes of action, excellent defensive discipline, clutch tackles by Nadia Alaiyan, and timely saves by Annie Wedel gave Pomona-Pitzer all the support it would need to hold on for the championship win.
Securing their first NCAA postseason berth since 2005, the Sagehens were selected to head nearly 2500 miles east to squaring off against University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in Bloomington, Illinois in the tournament's opening round. Facing an unfamiliar opponent far away from home, Pomona-Pitzer kept the postseason magic rolling by using an offensive explosion in the middle 30 minutes of the match, stellar defensive play, and a bit of luck to defeat the Eagles 3-0 and reach the NCAA Second Round for the first time in program history.
Entering new territory for the program, the Sagehens moved on to face their toughest test of the season in #7 Illinois Wesleyan, the CCIW regular season champion and 2014 Final Four participant. While the Titans dominated possession early and outshot Sagehens 9-2 including 7-0 over the final 20 minutes of the half, Annie Wedel's stellar six first half saves kept the score deadlocked at 0-0 after the first 45 minutes. Although the intense Titan defensive pressure kept the Hens well in check in the first half, Pomona-Pitzer would come out of halftime swinging with Danika Bethune breaking free inside the box in the 46' but a high hop led to Bethune's shot sailing high of the net to end the threat. The Sagehens' best scoring opportunity came in 71' when Abby Onderwyzer Gold got free for a header inside the 9' but couldn't direct it past the Titan keeper to keep the match at 0-0. While Illinois Wesleyan compiled 13 shots in the second half, continued postseason heroics from Wedel with six more saves combined with a dominant defensive performance from Nadia Alaiyan brought the match to overtime still knotted up at 0-0.
Although the Sagehens would dominate the possession of the first overtime period and limit the Titans to one shot, they could only muster one shot attempt themselves with Danika Bethune's 98th minute shot being easily blocked by CCIW Player of the Year Mary Kate Schmidt. It was the Titans, however, that would seal the deal in the second overtime period with a putback goal in the 105th minute off a favorable bounce from an Annie Wedel save to end the Hens' remarkable run.
While undoubtedly a heartbreaking way to end a season, the 2015 squad will be remembered much more for bringing the program to new heights and setting the stage for an even brighter future than the final goal. From reaching the SCIAC Postseason Tournament by the skin of their teeth to becoming the first team in program history to win a SCIAC Postseason crown and reach the NCAA Tournament Second Round, the two week run of the Pomona-Pitzer Women's Soccer team will go down as one of the greatest moments in Pomona-Pitzer Athletic history.
With the winningest class in program history set to graduate this spring, the Sagehens will have to replace four starters including 2015 2nd team All-SCIAC Defender Natalie Barbaresi as well as the leadership of captains Annie Wedel and Taylor Fortson. Nonetheless, with four All-SCIAC selections returning including 2nd Team All-Region performers Danika Bethune and Nadia Alaiyan, Pomona-Pitzer is poised to defend their SCIAC title and become the first team to make back-to-back NCAA Tournament title appearances in program history. Leading the SCIAC in all team offensive categories in 2015, the Hens will return all but eight of their 121 team points from last season as well as a talented defensive back line.
"While it will be impossible to replace just what that senior class meant to our team, we're in a great position to be even better next season with the players we'll have returning" said Scanlon. "I'm already excited for what 2016 has in store for our program and the future could not be any brighter for where I feel we're headed going forward."
While it's typically the sum of a number of different plays that decides the outcome of a game, there are times where it seems like that one special play truly made all the difference. For the Sagehens, Annie Wedel's two miraculous back-to-back saves will remain as a lasting image for the emergence of Pomona-Pitzer Women's Soccer, and only time can tell just how much two plays can mean for the trajectory of an entire program.