Monday, November 7, 2016

Big Sky Tonight 11.6.16: Eastern Washington wins Big Sky title in penalties

It could have been one of the most heartbreaking endings ever. Eastern Washington thoroughly dominated Sunday afternoon in Cheney against Northern Arizona in the Big Sky Championship match only to find themselves trailing after a penalty and ultimately needing the shootout tiebreaker to claim the program's first-ever league championship and NCAA Tournament berth.

After giving up a penalty in the first half, EWU tied things up early in the second period and went the distance even at 1-1, sending the game to a shootout. In the tiebreaker, the Eagles prevailed 4-3 to claim the Big Sky Championship as the league's fifth seed, though they were among the league leaders before going 1-3-1 in their final five of the season.

The match started off with EWU swarming the Northern Arizona goal, something that turned out to be a nearly endless theme on the day. It took very little time for the Eagles to put a scare into the third-seeded Lumberjacks. Just over two minutes in a ball came out to Jenny Chavez, who launched a shot from about 30 yards that caromed off the crossbar. The resulting scramble saw the ball collected by Brooke Dunbar, who unleashed a shot that was headed inside the right post only to see goalkeeper Meghan Dickmann dive and parry it away at the last second.

Chavez and Dunbar were among the myriad of Eagle attackers, led by two-time Big Sky Offensive MVP Chloe Williams (Spokane, WA), that were continually beating NAU defenders one-on-one and creating opportunities only to see their final efforts just off the mark or right at Dickmann.

At the end of the first half, the Eagles held a 10-1 shot advantage. The bad news was Northern Arizona's lone shot was a penalty Ali Lixandru converted with five minutes remaining in the first half following a foul in the box on Anna Goebel.

The good news was the Eagles only needed four minutes to change the complexion of the contest. Another drive along the endline created the set piece that changed things. Williams sent a driven, low ball at the near post that a pair of NAU defenders ended up deflecting upward into the six that another NAU defender headed straight up into the air. The pop-up fell to Delaney Romero (Yakima, WA / Walla Walla CC) about nine yards out in front of the center of goal. Her first-time attempt to volley the ball only connected partially, bouncing down and right to Chavez, who turned on the ball and volleyed it past the sea of bodies standing inside the six between her and the goalline.

Eastern continued its dominance in possession and held the ball in the attacking end for most of the second half while they looked for a winner before tired legs appeared to finally be making the Eagles look like NAU had for the entire match. Things evened out a bit for the final dozen minutes of regulation as they slowed in pace and saw their touches on the ball began to fail them. They also struggled to continue winning all of the 50-50 challenges, allowing the Lumberjacks to create some anxious moments down the stretch with some set piece opportunities and chances in the final third.

The Eagles, though, battled through the brief slump and looked re-energized when they took the pitch for overtime with an 18-3 advantage in shots that grew to 22-4 by the time the whistle sounded and signaled the oncoming tiebreaker.

The Lumberjacks would step to the spot first and Alexis Moest sent her effort just a little to the right, allowing Mallory Taylor to make a huge save that proved to be monumental in giving Eastern Washington the championship.

Chavez, Williams, Laci Rennaker (Spokane, WA) and M'Kenna Hayes would convert for Eastern in the first four rounds, respectively, while Adrian Nixt, Lindsay Doyle and Carly Gamble converted attempts two-four for the Lumberjacks. Then Lixandru, who converted on the penalty in the first half, stepped up for the first shot of the fifth round and skied her effort about a foot over the crossbar, sending the EWU players and supporters into a championship frenzy.

Though the match was technically a draw, the championship result avenged the Eagles' biggest loss of the Big Sky campaign as they fell 3-1 to the Lumberjacks last month in Flagstaff. They also avenged one of their other losses with their first round defeat of Montana. The semifinal victory over Idaho gave the Eagles the season sweep over the two-time regular season champion Vandals, whose only losses in the league on the campaign were to Eastern.

Once the celebration was muted a bit, everyone gathered at midfield for post-game presentations that included the All-Tournament awards. Chloe Williams, who  played all 290 minutes for the Eagles despite her endless running and slight bumps near the close of the championship game, was named the Big Sky Tournament Most Valuable Player. She was among five EWU selections on the All-Tournament Team with Jenny Chavez, M'Kenna Hayes, Aimie Inthoulay and Allison Raniere.

Also recognized as All-Tournament Team selections were NAU's Riley Porter, Lindsay Doyle, Adrian Nixt and Anna Goebel, who could have been argued as a possible MVP despite losing considering her unexpected three-goal tally was crucial in the team's success. Elexis Schlossarek (Idaho), Hallie Widner (Montana / Meridian, ID), Jennifer Lum (Sacramento State) and Sydney Schroeder (Northern Colorado) rounded things out. Surprisingly, no goalkeeper was selected among the honorees despite Taylor, who made the decisive tiebreaker save, finishing the tournament with the only goal allowed in 290 minutes of play being a penalty.  Awards [+]

The Eagles will learn their NCAA Tournament placement and first round pairing during the soccer selection shot at 1:30 pm Pacific on