Tournament MVP April Cronin (Glenview, Ill./Glenbrook South) scored the game's lone goal in the 84th minute as the Valparaiso women's soccer team won the 2014 Horizon League Championship over Detroit Saturday night at Brown Field, 1-0. With the title, the Crusaders' first since joining the Horizon League, Valpo advances to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005.
“It feels great to win the title, but at the end of the day, the reason it feels great is because we committed to something as a team,” said Crusader head coach John Marovich. “Our players committed to giving of themselves, so that way they could be a part of something bigger than them. We’ve been on a long journey, and the joy for me is watching them jump up and down on the field after the game, realizing that moment. The other thing I think of is every single player who came through here before this year’s team. They all worked their butt off while they were here, and were all over the country flying their V’s today, which tells me about the family this program is. Our players today won the championship, but today, every Valpo women’s soccer alum was a champion.”
With the clock ticking under seven minutes to play in regulation, it looked like the title game was destined for extra time until the Crusaders’ leading goal scorer got her foot on the ball. Senior Erika Schoemann (Calgary, Alberta/Saint Mary’s) got the play going, striking a free kick from the right side over 50 yards out. The cross sailed to the far side of the six-yard box, where Cronin brought it down unmarked after one hop. The sophomore settled it and calmly struck it to the left of a diving effort from Detroit goalkeeper Marina Manzo for the only goal the Crusaders would need.
From there, it was academic, as the Crusaders’ defense – strong all season long – was up to its biggest task of the year, not allowing the Titans to get a sniff at goal in the final few minutes of action. As the clock hit 90 minutes, numerous students among the nearly 1200 supporters in attendance – a school-record crowd for a soccer match - rushed the field to celebrate with the Crusader women as they clinched a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years and claimed their first Horizon League Championship.
“This was the greatest soccer environment this campus has ever seen,” said Marovich. “The men's team helped create the awesome environment with their singing and their chanting, and everybody else picked up on it. That’s what carries a team through when they’re getting tired legs 80 minutes in, is hearing nearly 1200 people getting behind them, so a big assist goes to everyone who came out and helped create that environment tonight. This is a great soccer community, from youth programs all the way up, and it was so exciting to see them create that atmosphere.”
Cronin was named Tournament MVP for her efforts in the Crusaders’ two tournament wins, as she tallied the match-winner in both contests. She was joined on the All-Tournament Team by three teammates: redshirt sophomore Sydney Galvez-Daley (Chicago, Ill./Fenwick), who posted a pair of clean sheets; redshirt sophomore Shelby Oelschlager (Glendale, Ariz./Mountain Ridge), who led the Crusaders’ back line in the two shutouts; and redshirt freshman Vanesa Abad (Barrington, Ill./Lake Zurich [Ohio State]), who scored the insurance goal in Valpo’s semifinal win over Green Bay.
For a side so predicated on their defensive strength all season long, the Crusaders rose to the challenge when the stakes were highest and the lights were brightest. After surrendering just four shots in Thursday’s semifinal victory, Valpo gave up just a season-low two shot attempts to Detroit on Saturday, as the Titans placed just one shot on goal. That one effort on goal came late in the first half from Alyssa Lotito, a free kick that Galvez-Daley bobbled ever so briefly before securing it in front of the goal line to keep the game scoreless.
"I thought our group did a very nice job of clearance tonight," said Marovich. "That's one of our key defensive principles is being good in clearance, and we knew that would be very important tonight - we really talked about being quality, knowing a lot of balls would be sent in. Obviously Detroit is a very good side which plays to its strengths. Alyssa Riley is a great player, and Sarrah Ludwig did a great job against her - it was a great battle to watch, and both players did an outstanding job.”
The Crusaders were generally the more dangerous side on the evening and put the pressure on Detroit in the second half. Junior Rita Craven (Frankfort, Ill./Lincoln-Way North) had an attempt stopped by Manzo in the 58th minute, and Oelschlager had a couple good looks on headers from set pieces over the next five minutes. Perhaps Valpo’s best chance of the night came from the eventual goal-scorer, as Cronin found herself one-on-one with Manzo in the 78th minute but placed her shot right at the Titan goalkeeper. Six minutes later, the sophomore ensured that the Crusaders and their fanbase would go on to win the Victory Bell as champions.
“We talk about being mentally tough – April gets that opportunity in the 78th minute and kicks it right at the goalie, but she’s mentally tough,” said Marovich. “She lets that go, leaves it behind her, and eventually gets another opportunity and puts it away. That’s what quality players do – they leave the stuff that doesn't work behind and move on to the next play. Our group today did a great job doing just that. Instead of panicking, they kept fighting, and found that next opportunity.”
Valpo ended the night with a 10-2 shot advantage on Detroit (9-9-1) and forced Manzo to make three saves. The Crusaders also earned the only three corner kicks of the night. The physical contest saw 29 total fouls called, 18 of which were against the Titans.
In the midst of winning the championship Saturday night, Valparaiso (14-1-4) extended its school-record winning (12) and unbeaten (18) streaks, as well as its program record for wins in a season and shutouts in a season (12). Cronin’s match-winner was her fourth of the year, tying an individual single-season record. The Crusaders will find out where they head for the NCAA Tournament on Monday afternoon, as the NCAA Division I women’s soccer selection show will be streamed live on NCAA.com beginning at 3:30 p.m. CT.