National Spotlight: Jimmie women crack NAIA's top 25
Bellevue University dealt the Jimmie women's soccer team a crushing blow to close the 2016 season.
One of the most successful campaigns ever played by the University of Jamestown was capped with the Bruins dismantling the Jimmies 6-1 in the championship match of the North Star Athletic Association conference tournament in Omaha.
The loss was still fresh in the minds of the Jimmies last Saturday in Jamestown, as they took down the Bruins for the first time 1-0.
"Honestly, that's what we were thinking about before the game," Jamestown junior goalkeeper Lauren Sayler said. "When we got that first goal it was kinda like winning a championship. We'd never beaten them."
The victory has catapulted the Jimmies (10-4-1) into the NAIA top 25 for the first time, and Sayler has played a large role. The former Bismarck High keeper recorded a career-high fifth shutout Saturday and was named the NSAA defensive player of the week for a third time this season.
The 25th-ranked Jimmies close the regular season with three more conference matches beginning Saturday at Waldorf University (Iowa). The Jimmies have produced one conference title and one national tournament appearance in women's soccer, both occurring in 2005.
"Something has just clicked this year and we've been rolling with it," Sayler said. "We haven't been relying on one person. Everyone has been able to score and a our back line has been solid, which has really been nice for me."
The Jimmies have allowed just 10 goals all season and are plus 26 in goal difference. Jamestown has relied on the physicality of all-conference junior backs Olivia Rivas and Jaelyn Lowery, as well as Nicole Bologna and Ana Balmaceda, to help keep opposing offenses pinned down.
Offensively, the Jimmies have utilized 13 players to net 36 goals, which has been a huge burden off reigning NSAA offensive player of the year Connie Contreras. The senior midfielder has tallied just three times after finding the mesh 11 times as a junior.
"I haven't been producing as much as before, but as long as we are winning and as long as we are producing I'm totally fine with that," said Contreras, who has started 57 matches and has scored 27 goals since her freshman season in 2014. "It's been a lot easier for me to focus on my position in the middle—starting plays and creating opportunities—instead of scoring goals."
Forwards Kristin Breaux (6 goals) and Phoebe Edwards (5) have led the way. Breaux and fellow freshman Kirstyn Aldridge (4 goals) have each produced a hat trick this season.
"It's tough for teams to defend us because we have numerous players who can score goals," Jimmie women's soccer coach Nick Becker said. "Part of that is our style of play, and another part is our depth and roster.
"But I don't think we've played our best soccer. We missed three pretty good chances at the end of the Bellevue game."
The Jimmies could arguably be ranked inside the nation's top 10 had a few bounces gone their way. Three of the team's four losses have been one-goal outcomes to nationally-ranked opponents, and the Jimmies also played eighth-ranked and undefeated Central Methodist University (12-0-2) to a 1-1 tie.
Down to just 10 players after being shown a first-half red card, an own-goal was the difference in a 1-0 overtime loss to 19th-ranked Benedictine College. The Jimmies have also fallen 1-0 to 20th-ranked Hastings College, and a penalty kick was the difference in a 1-0 loss to ninth-ranked Columbia College.
Following Saturday's match at Waldorf (1-14), the Jimmies wrap up conference play with matches against Presentation College (4-11) and Viterbo (4-7-3). If the Jimmies win out they'll not only capture the regular-season NSAA crown, but they'll also tie a single-season record 13 wins.
"It's nice to have position and stuff like that, but it doesn't mean anything," Becker said. "Our first goal is winning the conference, and if we play our soccer and take care of business we'll be just fine."
The second goal is obviously qualifying for the national tournament, which the Jimmies fell one match shy of last season at 12-6-1.
"This team is special. When we've gone up against tough teams we've really tried to step up to the plate because we want to show we can play with them," Contreras said. "Since I was a freshman, growing up with these girls and watching them develop, it's really rewarding to look back at the grind we've put in and see the positive results. It's been nice to see that."