Following a wild 2021 full of unexpected twists and turns, the Big Ten women’s soccer season finally has reached the home stretch with just two games on the schedule remaining. And while the top teams have clearly defined themselves, there still remains quite a bit to prove for most teams in the middle of the table. In a season where nothing seems to be a sure bet, all we can expect is a chaotic finish to the season.
Enjoy your title, Coasties
The race for first place has two teams, and they’re about five laps ahead of the rest of the pack
Penn State currently holds the lead in the title race by a slight margin, maintaining a two point advantage over Rutgers after the Scarlet Knights slipped up in a draw against Nebraska. The Nittany Lions have torn through Big Ten defenses this season, lighting up the scoreboard for a conference best 23 goals.
Their explosive offense is no surprise- senior Sam Coffey is one of the nations best attacking midfielders and (in my opinion) should have been a surefire first round pick in the 2021 draft. Coffey leads the conference in assists, and is second in goals only behind her teammate Ally Schlegel. Schlegel is only a redshirt sophomore, but she’s now in her second season of leading the Big Ten in goals, easily establishing her as one of the best forwards in the country.
Penn State controls their own destiny, but will have to take down a Nebraska side that, somewhat hilariously, has managed to be the most consistently dangerous team against the conference’s top sides so far this season (going to double overtime with Michigan and drawing Wisconsin and Rutgers). Lincoln, Nebraska is as #spooky as any location in Division I soccer right now, and the Nittany Lions will be facing a major trap game when they head to the Big Ten’s most western outpost on Sunday.
Lurking just behind Penn State in second place though is Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights led the title race almost all season after setting the pace with a thrilling 3-2 victory over Penn State on opening day, but fell a game behind this week by dropping points against Nebraska.
Amirah Ali is possibly the best striker playing today in college, a standing she’s lived up to with five goals this season. But what’s really scary about this Rutgers side is how incredibly young it is. After Ali and senior midfielder Gabby Provenzano most of the Scarlet Knights’ top contributors this season have been underclassmen. Becca Fluchel, Emma Misal, Sara Brocious, Samantha Kroeger, Julianne Leskauskas, and Allison Lowrey are all freshmen that have posted major minutes and stats.
A trip to Madison on Sunday will provide a perfect opportunity for Rutgers to test themselves against one of the Big Ten’s best teams and get some energy heading into the final day.
Nobody really knows what’s going on here
The middle of the standings have fluctuated massively throughout the season, and even with two games left just four points separate slots 3-10.
Despite a surprisingly weak start to the season Michigan has slowly but surely found their form and emerged as the likely third seed heading into the tournament. The Wolverines have been anchored by their experience- their top nine leaders in overall minutes are all upperclassmen.
Alia Martin is one of the conference’s top defenders and has been a steadfast presence throughout the year in Ann Arbor. She protects goalie Hillary Beall, who’s started for several years now and has brought more consistency to this confusing 2021 edition of the Wolverines. The firepower has come from senior midfielder Nicki Hernandez, who has five goals and two assists, as well as breakout freshman Sammi Woods. The Michigan native has only started two games, but has spent her time on the pitch well- racking up four goals and three assists.
Though at times maddeningly inconsistent, the Wolverines can beat anyone on their day- and still haven’t gotten the best out of full Canadian national teamers Sarah Stratigakis and Jayde Riviere since their return from international duty. There’s not a team in the country that would want to see Michigan on the schedule if they hit top gear.
Occupying fourth place (technically) is Michigan’s hated neighbors to the south, Ohio State. Though they’ve played fewer games than most of the conference due to a Covid cancellation, the Buckeyes have put together a very strong season. Only a loss to Rutgers has blemished OSU’s record against the conferences’ best, as they’ve beaten Wisconsin and tied Penn State and Michigan. Sophomore forward Emma Sears has been a force up front for the Buckeyes, knocking in five goals as well as adding two assists. Her fellow Ohio native Kayla Fischer has also stepped up with four goals and a pair of assists. Pulling the creative strings in the midfield are a pair of underclassmen making their first starts this season- Brittany Duncan and Peyton McNamara have combined for seven assists on the year.
Though fourth on total points, Wisconsin currently slots in at fifth in the standings due to their lower numbers in the “points per game” metric. It’s been a frustrating season for the Badgers, who have struggled to find their second gear offensively.
An elite defense is anchored by an elite goalkeeper in Jordyn Bloomer, but the Badgers conference-best goals against record is negated by the fact that they’ve only found the back of the net seven times so far in 2021. The return of senior forward Lauren Rice is good news for UW- she immediately picked up an assist in her first start back and the attack looked noticeably better with her slotted in- but there still is work to be done if the Badgers want to win out against an elite Rutgers team and a strong Minnesota side. Sophomore attacking midfielder Emma Jaskaniec has been a bright spot for Wisconsin, scoring a team high three goals as well as registering an assist.
Northwestern has emerged as a very tough team in the middle of a tight Big Ten pack, combining a stingy defense with an improved offense to create a potent team that can keep themselves close with just about anyone in the right circumstances. Freshman Josie Aulicino has been a breakout star in the midfield for the Wildcats, and Olivia Stone has emerged as the goal scoring threat that was sorely missed in Evanston throughout the 2019 season, providing 3 goals (all of which have been game winners) in addition to a pair of assists. Mackenzie Wood is in her third year starting between the pipes for NU, and her experience has shown: all five Wildcat victories have been shutouts. It also certainly helps that Wood is protected by junior defender Hallie Pearson, who hasn’t left the field all year.
Lagging just behind the Wildcats with 14 points is Minnesota. In a blessing for people like me trying to make sense of the order of the conference, the Gophers have been surprisingly consistent in their results. They’ve lost to the teams one would expect them to lose to (Rutgers, Penn State, Michigan) and have gone undefeated (three wins and two ties) otherwise. Minnesota doesn’t score often, with only five total goals on the year, but their three 1-0 wins prove that when they do score they make it count.
Though she’s only started two games, Sadie Harper has been one of the most efficient scorers in the conference- notching two goals on just ten total shots. The final day of the season will be a big one for the Gophers, when they’ll face an interesting test against rival Wisconsin. Though they haven’t won a Border War with the Badgers since 2013, one note of hope for Minnesota is the game will be played on their home turf- where they’re yet to lose a game this year. Regardless of the result, this year has been an excellent step forward for a team that finished 3-12-4 last year.
To say Indiana has had a confusing season would be an understatement. The Hoosiers currently sit at an even .500 record, but the results of their 2021 campaign have been anything but balanced. IU has scored upset victories over Rutgers and Wisconsin, and played Penn State extremely close. But they’ve also been caught flat footed by Northwestern and Illinois, and were one late winner away from heading to overtime with last-placed, winless Maryland.
Melanie Forbes has paced the team with six points, leading all Hoosiers with three goals. Bethany Kopel has been key in net as well- the senior’s posted three shutouts (two of which came against Rutgers and Wisconsin). Unlike most teams, Indiana has three games left on the schedule to push their way into the top four, but one of them will be a tough test in Ann Arbor against Michigan.
Illinois is yet another team that approaches the final stretch of the season in the thick of the race for third and fourth place, though they fall further behind the pack than most. The Illini have a talented team across the board, but perhaps their most interesting player this year has been Kendra Pasquale.
The redshirt sophomore conventionally slots into the teams’ lineup as a defender, playing as a fullback in a back four, but it’s been her work in attack that catches the eye. Pasquale has had a prolific season in front of goal- netting four goals (good for seventh best in the Big Ten) as well as an assist. Her nine points in 2021 are the best on the team by some margin. Other notable contributors include defenders Aleah Treiterer, Joanna Verzosa-Dolezal, Ashley Cathro, all of whom have played nearly every minute for the Illini this season, as well as goalkeeper Sami Sample, who leads the Big Ten in saves and is second in shutouts.
Rounding out the middle tier is Purdue, who head into the closing stretch sitting on 13 points. Though the Boilermakers do have a strong win over Wisconsin to their name, the rest of their resume doesn’t pop off the page. One of the stronger attacking teams in the second tier, eight of Purdue’s nine goals have come from the dynamic forward duo of Sarah Griffith and Nicole Kevdzija. The pair have notched 18 points in just eight games, and it will be no surprise if any late push made by the Boilermakers in their final games against Iowa and in-state rival Indiana are powered by the duo.
At least you get to be in a more unique tier?
These four teams have combined for three wins total.
It almost feels unfair to put Nebraska in the bottom tier, because they’ve actually had some surprisingly great individual results. They’ve tied both Wisconsin and Rutgers, and took Michigan to double overtime before falling 3-2. Unfortunately, these draws against great teams have been interspersed with draws against far weaker teams as well as some rough losses on the road. Away from Lincoln the Cornhuskers have struggled massively, with the most recent road game being a 4-1 shellacking at the hands of a Northwestern team that isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut. Senior defender and four year starter Grace Brown has been pivotal for the Cornhuskers, providing crucial experience and leadership. Brown is one of two players (goalie Makinzie Short being the other) who is yet to leave the field this season for Nebraska.
Michigan State has been unable to catch a break this year. The Spartans actually started the year 1-0-1, drawing Maryland on the road and then beating Nebraska at home, but they then skidded into a 6 game losing streak. The most brutal of those losses came two weeks ago, when their in-state rival Michigan woke up one Friday and chose violence. The Wolverines hit MSU for seven goals in a statement game, but it is worth noting that the Spartans have slowly improved since then. They’re still yet to register a win, but they played Purdue to a tight 1-0 on Sunday before taking Northwestern to overtime in another 1-0 loss on Thursday. With three games left to play, it’s not implausible the Spartans steal a victory before the regular seasons’ close. Look for Danielle Stephan to be at the heart of any future wins though- the senior has more assists to her name (3) than the rest of the team combined (2).
To say Iowa has had a rough season on the offensive end is an understatement. Though they have been a solid defensive outfit, the Hawkeyes have only scored twice in nine games. One of those goals came in the teams’ only win, a 1-0 overtime defeat of Maryland, and the other was scored in a relatively close match with Rutgers. Iowa does have the ability to drag top competition into everyone’s favorite Big Ten rock fights- they’ve tied Michigan and only lost by single goal margins to Wisconsin, Penn State, and Rutgers- but an actual victory over a team above them in the standings is yet to appear. One late season breakout player could be Gianna Gourley, as the sophomore only worked her way into the starting lineup last week but now has the Hawkeyes only goal from open play this season and appears set to be a mainstay in the attack until the seasons’ conclusion.
Occupying the cellar of the Big Ten standings with just two games to go is Maryland. The Terrapins are the only team in the conference without a win in 2021, and with one of the conference’s better teams (Minnesota) and it’s current best team (Penn State) as the only remaining opponents on their slate it seems all but set in stone that they’ll finish the season winless. They’ve allowed more goals (18) than any other team in the conference, and have only scored six themselves. Sydney Staier has been the team’s metronome in the midfield, leading the Terrapins in minutes and tying for the second most points. Maryland’s leading scorer is Keyera Wynn, who’s notched a pair of goals in just three starts and 245 total minutes.