Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Whitworth women open with win under spotlight

Tiara Pajimola and Megan McCart tallied in Pirates' win  |  More photos coming soon 
Taking the field amidst controversy for their season opener, the Whitworth women put forth an outstanding effort against visiting Carleton College for a 2-0 victory that brought, at least momentarily, some smiles to the players on the squad as five of their friends and teammates were absent for a suspension handed down for a racially-insensitive incident that occurred earlier in the week and has brought unprecedented attention to the women's soccer program.

With the roster shaken up and three true freshman in the starting lineup, the Pirates came out and shut down a Knights squad that was 7-1-3 (11-4-4 overall) a year ago and was selected to finish second in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference's preseason coaches poll. In a game that was primarily a midfield battle, the Whitworth defense allowed just one shot on goal that Andrea Stump needed to save.

At the other end, the Pirates were having similar issues in the early going trying to break through the back line of Carleton, but in the 21st minute a ball from DeNae Vandam up the right side gave Tiara Pajimola some space to work with. The senior striker beat goalkeeper Mikayla Coulombe one-on-one about 12 yards out from goal and sent an angled shot home for the go-ahead goal.

The goal came just minutes after the team's worst defensive miscue when Stump, out to play the ball at the top of the area, and her defenders had a significant communication breakdown and turned the ball over inside the area. Fortunately, they were in good enough position to keep the Knights' striker from getting a quality look at goal when she got to the ball.

"It was the first game so we had first game nerves," said Whitworth Head Coach Jael Hagerott, who was otherwise very pleased with the match given the eventful preseason. "Training camp has been a real challenge because of the air quality, and we had to cancel our scrimmage (versus CC Spokane). So for our first time out, we are very pleased with the depth of our roster and what the players did on the field."

Things have not gone well this preseason for the Whitworth women, a program that in recent years has been hit with illness and injury issues it seems each campaign. For weeks their preparation was stymied by the smoke-filled air from regional wildfires and on the same day their lone warm-up game was cancelled they lost starting midfielder Katie Bischoff for the year to a broken arm in the afternoon training session.

Then controversy struck when a photo posted to Instagram and Facebook Monday became headline news in the Spokane community on Tuesday. The photo, posted by a player, depicted herself and four teammates - all unidentified by the university at this time - in blackface as the Jackson 5 at an unofficial team gathering at a local bowling alley in which members of the team were all in costume for the evening. Ignorant of the negative history of blackface, the students have since expressed their apologies through members of the school administration, which has been in meetings with players and coaches throughout the past 24 hours regarding the matter.  View KXLY TV Report [+]

Though the five players and their behavior is still under review by the "student-conduct process" per the athletic department's statement, they were suspended by coach Hagerott for the game Wednesday.

In her only discussion of the incident itself, Hagerott said in the statement: "In light of the impact that these actions have had on Whitworth and the greater Spokane community, we feel it is in the best interest of all involved to take this action at this time. While their intentions were not malicious, the outcome of their actions was painful for many in our community.  We feel that this punitive response is proportional to their actions."

"I think they've just been concentrating on what they need to do on the field," Hagerott said after the game of how the rest of the team came into the match. "There are always other things you have to sort through in life, but they've been able to focus. They came together as a group. That was sort of our motto - we stick together and make sure we play our game; get it done of the field. And we did that."

With their first-game nerves out of the way midway through the first half, the Pirates used their bench liberally to keep a constant set of fresh legs in the game against Carleton, which began to produce more space for the Pirates to take control in the possession game.

Five minutes into the second half it paid off as a series of passes up the left side finished with Brooke Morrow sending a lightly-weighted diagonal ball into the middle that died to a crawl in the grass near the top of the box. Megan McCart was the first one to it and drilled a first-time effort past the keeper for some insurance.

They nearly added one more in the 62nd minute when Pajimola nicely turned and fired from the top left edge of the area only to see it deflect just wide of the far right post for a corner.

"Our freshman class came in fit, they came in ready," said Hagerott said of her new players, who played a key role throughout the pitch in the match. "They have a good mind for the game, and then we have great leadership from our upperclassmen that has really brought the team together well."

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