GVSU women's soccer team treks to Georgia for fifth consecutive Final-Four
One shot. One opportunity. Maybe five.
Both the Grand Valley State University and American International College women’s soccer teams are on the brink of seizing everything they ever wanted heading into the season.
One will capture the moment. The other will let it slip.
The stage is set for Thursday at 11 a.m. in Blanchard Woods Park in Evans Park, Ga., and although GVSU holds a distinct advantage in Final Four appearances over AIC, neither program is outmatched heading into the semifinal contest.
“(America International) is a very good team; they are the best team we’ve faced all year, in many ways, but that is what you assume will be the case in the Final Four,” GVSU coach Dave DiIanni said. “They don’t have a lot of weaknesses. They may not be as deep as us, but their starting lineup is very solid all around.”
The Lakers return to Georgia, where their undefeated season began, 9-0-1 on the road, with intent to amend for last year’s 2-1 semifinal loss to the University of California, San Diego. GVSU will play in its fifth consecutive Final Four game Thursday. AIC, 7-0-1 on the road this season, will play the first in program history.
“It’s a tremendous feeling,” AIC coach Matt Johnson said. “We’ve been working toward this for eight years, and our girls are so excited.”
That’s where the differences end.
The National Soccer Coaches Athletic Association (NSCAA) poll No. 1 ranked GVSU (22-0-1) has allowed only three goals on the season and held opponents to a paltry 5.4 shots per game, while tallying 19 shutouts, including a 13-straight game shutout streak—the second-longest streak in NCAA Division II history—to start the season.
“Defense wins championships, and because of our strong defense, we’ve given ourselves a chance to evolve slowly offensively,” Dilanni said. “We are very balanced in all areas of the field, and we have many options.”
The NSCAA No. 13 ranked AIC (18-2-2) has allowed only six goals on the season and held opponents to 6.3 shots per game, while notching 18 shutouts.
Led by junior forward Jenny Shaba with a team-high 14 goals, 12 assists and 40 points, the Laker lineup that has netted 82 goals on an average of 25.3 shots per game includes six other student-athletes with 18 points or more. Led by junior forward Sonia Basma with a team-high 19 goals, 11 assists and 49 points, the Yellow Jackets of AIC have tallied 57 goals on an average of 23.2 shots per game.
Two of the best two-way teams in Division II collegiate soccer, GVSU and AIC mirror each other in more ways than one.
In a complete GVSU sweep, senior defender Kayla Kimble was named GLIAC Defensive Player of the Year; Shaba snagged Offensive Player of the Year; senior Abbey Miller, who tallied 15 solo shutouts and played 1,228:08 consecutive minutes without allowing a goal—the second-longest run in DII history, took Goalkeeper of the Year; and Dilanni boasts Coach of the Year.
“All of our kids have received awards, but we’d trade them all in to win a national championship,” Dilanni said.
Four-year AIC starter, do-it-all defender Bailey Robinson was named to the Northeast-10 Conference second team and is considered by her coach to be one of the best kept secrets in Division II soccer. “Bailey made an impact for us from day one, and it is our opinion internally that she is one of the most underrated players in the country,” Johnson said. “She is one of the top 10 players this conference has ever seen and has turned into a complete player in every facet of the game.
“I’ve never had a player like her. She can play any position on the field except goalkeeper. If I started her up top all year, she’d be an All-Conference forward.”
With only four teams remaining in tournament play, there’s no surprise that the quality is reflected.
“The accolades, the streaks, the awards are all great, but it’s the intangibles that a lot of people don’t see that go towards how much success we see,” Dilanni said. “The team has some of the best chemistry of any I’ve coached, and when players care about each other, a lot can go well.”
In a match that could see as few as five quality shots taken in total, the team that takes advantage of the limited amount of opportunities left in the waning season will likely shine back the brightest and advance to the championship game to be played Saturday at noon. The mantra: feet, fail me not.
The opportunity comes once, maybe five times if you’re lucky, in a lifetime.
“We’re ecstatic to be where we are,” Dilanni said. “We’ve had a lot of different goals this season, and those were really important for us to get. We’re happy to keep playing, to extend the season and stay together, but we’re also intent that our senior class go out on top.”