Losses in the playoffs tend to signal the end of a long, arduous season jam-packed with soaring highs and plummeting lows. In the case of the Slippery Rock women’s soccer team, a conference playoff loss does not signal the end of the season, as a chance for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013 still looms large ahead of the NCAA Selection Committee’s final rankings Monday evening.
For the Green and White this season, nothing came easy. A tough schedule in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, which already boasts some of the best teams in Division II women’s soccer, was much tougher than anticipated with a few surprise teams contending for the PSAC Tournament.
The Rock stumbled through the end of September and that carried into early October with a 1-3-2 record following the 6-1 start to begin the season. Losses to conference powerhouses Bloomsburg University, Seton Hill University and East Stroudsburg University by a combined score of 7-2 and consecutive draws with Lock Haven University and Gannon University – for the first time in program history – left the fate of the season at a crossroads.
A tough schedule lied ahead for The Rock, but head coach Jessica Griggs knew what this squad could do and let them know with words unsuited for print. The team responded.
“We went through a short spell in the middle of the season where I think we lost sight of what we were capable of doing,” Griggs said. “What I was most proud of was that five-game winning streak at the end where we beat two of the top teams. What I was most proud of was their ability to just take that pressure with them to do it. We knew that those five games were needed for us to get into the PSACs and we did it with composure and a lot of pride.”
Following the loss to Bloomsburg on Oct. 6, The Rock dropped to near .500 in the PSAC and languished near the middle of the conference table, stalled out after a strong start to the season.
An away loss against No. 14 Millersville University following the away match with Bloomsburg would have dropped the Green and White further down the table and made qualifying for the PSAC Tournament virtually impossible. Instead, a couple of familiar faces came to the rescue for The Rock. Senior forwards Brooke Testa and Skye Kramer each tallied a goal to upset then-conference leader Millersville to begin a clutch five-game win streak.
“I just think that the leadership from our upper-classmen has been pretty special and I think that overall the team created a really great culture where mistakes can be made and it’s not necessarily the mistake that is made but how you fix it that matters. I think that the girls held onto that really well,” Griggs explained.
Home wins over California University (Pa.) and Mercyhurst University, two multi-goal shutouts, led to a pivotal match-up with West Chester University, a match with PSAC and NCAA implications. Once again, Testa struck for a game-winning goal to secure a berth in the PSAC Tournament for the Green and White with a 1-0 shutout.
A gritty Senior Night shutout over Shippensburg University secured the second-best season under Griggs and clinched the eighth seed for The Rock.
A 12-4-2 (10-4-2 PSAC) record clinched a 21st straight 10-win season for the Green and White and the fourth in four years for Griggs.
Making the playoffs to most universities may be a major accomplishment, but to The Rock, it is a requirement. With losses in the PSAC quarterfinals in back to back years, the Green and White’s 32 regular season points only locked up the eighth, and final, seed and a brutal match-up with Bloomsburg.
Holding a halftime lead over Bloomsburg, Griggs felt the team grew complacent during the intermission and allowed their emotions to get the better of themselves as the second half wore on. A 4-1 defeat ended their PSAC Tournament in the quarterfinals for the third straight season.
“I think emotions were probably high. I think anytime you get down to the wire… I think that in the first half we played really well and when we came off at halftime they were thinking they won the game, and I remember telling them at halftime that there’s still another half to play and there’s a storm brewing over there.”
Besides the six seniors, a majority of freshmen and sophomores comprise this season’s squad and freshman midfielder Jordyn Minda made the greatest contribution of them all – and the entire team. Minda scored the team-leading seventh goal of her freshman campaign against Bloomsburg, continuing a trend of timely goals for The Rock.
Griggs said she knows what needs to be worked on in order to correct the errors against Bloomsburg if the Green and White are able to clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think that going into the NCAA Tournament, should we make it, I’m just going to have to remind the girls to take your emotions out of it. You’ve got a job to do,” Griggs commented. “I think it depends on today’s two semifinals games and I can’t predict because it’s all statistical and everybody who knows me knows that I’m really bad at math.”
The loss forces The Rock to await the final Atlantic Region ranking from the NCAA. Six teams qualify for the NCAA Tournament with the PSAC champion and Mountain East Conference champion receiving automatic bids. In the latest ranking, the Green and White were behind Bloomsburg, Kutztown University and Millersville for fourth in the region. While the loss to Bloomsburg hurts their chances, their overall resume – with multiple national upsets – should present the NCAA Selection Committee with a compelling argument.
Powered by All-PSAC honorees at each level, forward, midfield and defense, The Rock rostered three All-PSAC players. Minda received a first-team All-PSAC award, junior defender Madison Johnson received a second-team reward and Testa received a third-team honor.
“I’m really proud of [Testa], there are some really incredible forwards in this conference so for her to make third team is really something special because it’s such a forward loaded conference. She’s really focused academically and I’m really proud of her to be able to do both over the years. Maddie Johnson is one of the most intelligent players I’ll ever coach… I’m just really glad the other coaches in the conference can recognize that. Jordyn… that was special. First-team all-conference as a freshman is really special, but when you get one of the big four awards, it’s confidence in her,” Griggs described.
Minda led the Green and White in points (16), goals (7) and tallied two assists in her freshman season. Testa ranked just behind Minda in points and goals with 15 and 5, respectively, while also notching five assists. Johnson, the defensive leader, tallied a goal and assist while leading the squad in total minutes played.
Johnson and the freshman and senior duo of Emma Yoder and Kylie Downs marshaled The Rock to a top-five defense in the PSAC. Allowing only 17 goals in 19 games for a clip of .89 per game, the Green and White ranked fourth in both categories across the conference.
The defensive corps was expected to be a key cog in this season’s squad and while most would not expect a freshman midfielder to contribute right away, Griggs had a feeling Minda would be an exception.
“I had a feeling,” said Griggs with a chuckle. “I had a feeling. She was really highly recruited by some big-time Division I schools so we knew she’d be the right fit here. It was really just a matter of what part of the field she would fit in, so I think we made the right decision putting her in the middle of the field.”
Regardless of whether or not the Green and White will continue their season on the national scale, getting to create these lasting bonds with players like Testa and Downs and getting to see a freshman like Minda blossom makes these rigorous seasons worth the effort for Griggs.
“You get so caught up in the moment, in the here and now that you don’t really try to go so far beyond. I’m excited about next year’s class. I know I have one other kid who’s coming in that I think will fill a role. The leadership, the culture, the team atmosphere and the way that our team interacts with each other is always very exciting for us. Just spending time with the team is really just a big gift,” Griggs remarked.
However, do not mistake contentment for complacency. The Rock women eagerly anticipate hearing their name called out on Selection Monday for a chance at the National Tournament. You can count on this team making the most of a selection and showing just what they are capable of achieving.