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Saints Finish Strong After Slow Start


Goalie waving while her teammates cheer her on during pregame introductions.
Sophomore Goalkeeper Krystal Rodriguez waves at the crowd after being announced in the season finale. Credit: Rose Mwaro.

The USF Women’s Soccer team had their season come down to the wire in the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference (CCAC) quarterfinal round against Saint Xavier University. After going down 1-0 in the opening minute of the second half, the Saints bombarded the Cougars with five shots on goal over the course of the rest of the match to no avail.

The end to the quarterfinal match-up ended the Fighting Saints’ season in thrilling fashion. The Saints finished the year 6-7-5 overall and 6-2-3 in conference play, good for fourth in the CCAC table.

There were ups and downs throughout the year for a very streaky Saints team. Dealing with a grueling 0-5-2 non-conference slate, the Bernies could not get their first win of the year until their third conference game, coasting to a 5-0 victory over Indiana University South Bend.

The tables turned after the blowout victory and the Fighting Saints rattled off five consecutive wins and seven non-losing decisions.

Closing out the regular season with a win against Viterbo University, the Saints had energy and optimism going into the postseason after skyrocketing down the stretch and into a match-up with Saint Xavier University, a team they had beaten 2-1 earlier in conference play.

The abrupt end to the season in the quarterfinal round puts a lid on the 2023-24 season for the women’s soccer team and now gives fans time to reflect on the year that it was.

The Fighting Saints came into the season off of one of the best years in school history, a 12-6-1 record with an 8-4-1 clip in conference. Building on the success of the 2022 campaign was going to be difficult from the outset according to Al Palar, the head coach of the team in his fourth season at the helm who had the task of replacing Allison Schaar, one of the stars of the Saints’ program who led the offense for the 2022 season with 14 goals and 32 points. Filling the void left by Schaar was one of Coach Palar’s chief concerns, saying that going into the season goal scoring had the potential to be an issue.

“We knew we had a strong defense and midfield with capable forwards,” Palar said. “Maybe [we] would have trouble finding the back of the net.”

This came to pass as the team dropped their goals per game average by over half a goal between the 2022 and 2023 seasons. Playing a schedule where 12 matches were decided by one goal, being able to take advantage of scoring opportunities was paramount for this squad in both wins and losses.

Coach Palar notes that one of the critical moments during the year for turning some of those decisions in his team’s favor was the second conference match-up of the year, a Sep 19 contest in South Bend against Holy Cross College. The 1-1 tie placed the Saints at 0-5-3 and 0-1-1 in conference play and even though the match resulted in a draw, Palar noticed how well the team was playing and meshing. With the schedule easing up for the start of conference play, things were looking up for the rest of the year. From this bout on the Fighting Saints wouldn’t lose for seven consecutive matches and vaulted up the CCAC standings to surpass their fifth seed position in 2022 and move into fourth place for the post-season.

It wasn’t until Alex Joanitis scored in the 46th minute for Saint Xavier that the Saints started to lose some of their momentum.

“I just think we got down after they scored and our chances were shot away,” said Krystal Rodriguez, starting goalie and reigning CCAC Freshman of the Year. “We had faith we could at least manage a tie and when some of our chances fell through, I think we all kind of got a down feeling.” Palar doesn’t want the end of the year to overshadow the effort of the team this fall, saying they should be proud of their passion and overall desire.  The Saints once again have to face losing more players from this year’s team, but Palar wants fans to know that he has high expectations for his group next season.

Despite losing three key figures from the squad this year, as preparation for the 2023-24 season begins, Palar is confident that with some of the program’s recruiting, the Fighting Saints can have “one of the best years in program history”, saying that “with two or three more difference makers I really think next year we can break some records.”

There is plenty of reason for hope from within the program as well, with the return of Krystal Rodriguez, and the three All-Conference selections, including Kelly Flores who was recognized as the CCAC Freshman of the Year this season. For one of the university’s most successful sports programs, the 2022-23 season is hopefully a launch for what is to come.

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