Fall, Women's Soccer

Eagles Continue to Show Defensive Resolve, Knock Off No. 21 Texas Tech

In its first four games of the 2018 season—all wins—Texas Tech women’s soccer scored within the first two minutes twice. The Red Raiders, the No. 21 team in the country, play with an energy from the outset that wreaks havoc on opposing defenses as they’re beginning to settle into the game.

So, when Texas Tech arrived in Newton to take on Boston College, it came out of the gates with the same energy—but was greeted by a lockdown defense. And, instead of taking an early lead and relaxing the rest of the way, as they did in victories over San Diego State and Pepperdine, the Red Raiders went down early to the surging Eagles and never recovered, falling, 1-0—the difference being a ninth-minute goal from Gianna Mitchell.

“We knew about their style, their energy level,” BC (6-0) head coach Alison Foley said. “It’s a ‘ra ra’ group, and you have to weather it. We try to keep our kids professional and engaged in the moment. It was exactly what we thought was going to happen.”

Foley’s back four have been just shy of being perfect on the year. Aside from two goals let in at the end of the first half of the season opener, the Eagles have recorded clean sheets in each and every game. With Alexis Bryant, in her fourth year as the starting goaltender, calling the shots behind two impressive centre backs and a trio of outside backs splitting time, it’s easy to see why BC has found success.

The group is defined by Mitchell and Kayla Duran in the middle, a duo that is first and second in minutes played. One such moment was in the second half, where, with nine minutes to go and a one-goal lead to protect, Duran cleared away a corner kick chance and Mitchell followed with an excellent slide tackle to prevent a run down the left side.

On Saturday, one of the best of the group might’ve been Elysa Virella, though—a former JUCO transfer who has steadily improved to win back her starting job on the left side. Virella, time and time again, was able to largely contain Texas Tech (4-1) on the attack, especially speedy right wing Kirsten Davis—whether forcing her to pull back or simply guiding her out of bounds to set up a goal kick. Virella’s lengthy throw-ins were also crucial in creating the few chances the Eagles had to counterattack.

“She had a really good game,” Foley said. “We’ve been waiting for her to get in full form. I said to her today, ‘You’re there.’ There was three plays she did at the end of the game in the last 10 minutes where she was just running with [Davis], getting us goal kicks that were really important.”

The lone goal? In fitting fashion, it came from one of the defenders responsible for containing the Red Raiders all night. Mitchell, enjoying an incredible start to the 2018 campaign, netted her team-leading fifth goal of the season—all coming via corner kicks. It came amid a scrum in front of the net off a Sam Coffey service, and even Foley wasn’t sure if it was her or Duran who got the last touch on it. The box was crowded, as Mitchell had taken up her usual position in front of Texas Tech keeper Marissa Zucchetto, with Duran flying in amid three other defenders. Zucchetto appeared to attempt to grab the ball, but was shielded and couldn’t get her hands on it before it flew into the back of the net.

Either way, the corner kick once again was BC’s key play, with Foley describing every one that the Eagles earn as “dangerous.”

“When you have someone like Sam Coffey, who can hit a corner kick in like that, you’re dangerous every time,” she said. “We just know we have two incredibly strong targets and someone who can serve a perfect ball. It puts us [in the position] to be dangerous every time on set pieces.”

The only goal of the game wasn’t without controversy. Referee Michelle Beagan, who handed out five yellow cards—all in the second half—got an earful from Red Raiders head coach Tom Stone. Storming up and down the sideline, desperate to get in the ear of Beagan or one of the assistant referees, Stone complained after watching Zucchetto come crashing down in the crowd, falling backward into the net. It wasn’t the first protest lodged by the 12th-year head coach, though, as he grew frustrated with an assortment of calls and no-calls.

It was an aggravating defeat for Stone’s side, as for much of the game, his team looked superior on the attack, possessing quite well. BC struggled mightily to form a cohesive attack, and the seams that the Eagles have exploited in the past few games to free forwards like Olivia Vaughn to go in on goal weren’t there. Jenna Bike found some success down the right sideline, but all three of her shots were far from finding the frame. Foley tried seemingly every combination of forwards she had at her disposal—Carly Leipzig and Riley Lochhead notably made appearances—but nothing appeared to work.

The problems for the Eagles’ attack were rooted in connecting the back with the front. The midfield, hampered without Kayla Jennings, wasn’t able to do much. Coffey drew the attention of the Red Raiders’ defense and was denied the ball often, while a breakout game from Mijke Roelfsema—she did every little thing right for the Eagles—wasn’t enough. A part of the struggles in the offensive third can be traced to the ninth-minute goal, as BC settled in on defense after and focused on denying the equalizer. The Eagles rarely pushed forward, fearful of Tech’s overall team speed on the counterattack, and, as a result, left many crosses untouched.

The visitors didn’t have the same problems, as they were able to possess with ease. One notable possession featured upwards of 10 completed passes in a row, a Spain-esque performance of switching the field and probing the opposing defense. Still, the end of that run mirrored the final result—a ball cleared out over the half line. The win, the first marquee victory for Foley’s squad, should earn them a spot in next week’s poll—a plus-14 goal differential and six wins in six tries is quite the resume. The Eagles are still three games removed from the trials of conference play, but with the defense in peak form, they’ll likely be much more confident heading into ACC action than years past.

Featured Image by Bradley Smart / Heights Editor

September 2, 2018