The circumstances at the start of the season were not ideal when the St. Louis University women’s soccer team began pursuit of a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
The Billikens were without three starters, untested freshmen were expected to contribute and overall conditioning was not at an acceptable level for coach Katie Shields. A strong nonconference schedule produced three early losses, two coming against teams that are nationally ranked.
But as the schedule unfolded and the roster recovered, the Billikens hit their stride. They have not lost in the last six games and have scored four goals in all three of their Atlantic 10 wins to once again look like a team that could reach the postseason.
“We played a very hard schedule because we thought we had a very good team that we needed to test,” Shields said. “We tried to get big results that we didn’t get, but hopefully it will pay off toward the end.”
SLU (8-3-1) will play home games against St. Joseph’s, on Thursday at 7 p.m., and St. Bonaventure, on Sunday at 1 p.m., in hopes of remaining unbeaten in the conference after going 10-0 in 2018.
If all goes well, the Billikens will have the opportunity to play for the A-10 tournament championship on their home field. But for now they are focused on maintaining the momentum that was built after losses to No. 19 Louisville, No. 25 Oklahoma State and Notre Dame.
“I think we’re starting to gel with the mix of newcomers and returning players and finally starting to get a rhythm,” senior midfielder Courtney Reimer said. “We’ve found our flow in who’s coming in and playing with each other more.”
Reimer is one of numerous players who have contributed to the resurgence. She was named to the TopDrawerSoccer.com national team of the week last week after scoring in both wins.
Sophomore Hannah Friedrich picked up where she left off her record-breaking freshman season by leading the team in goals, with five. Annabelle Copeland has found her scoring touch with four recent goals.
But with nine players scoring thus far, SLU has the type of well-balanced offense that Shields has developed in recent years.
“We’re creating a lot of chances out of our defensive pressure, and we’ve been really good on set pieces,” she said. “That’s practice and people knowing how to execute roles in those scenarios. We’ve just been really efficient the last three games, which we haven’t always been known to be historically.”
The Billikens did not score in three of their biggest games. After a 2-0 loss at Oklahoma State, which dropped SLU to 3-3, Reimer said Shields put the team through one of the toughest practices of the season with nothing but one-on-one drills.
“We had some tough practices,” she said. “When you see the practice plan and it says ‘1 v 1,’ you know that’s when she wants to get the competitive juices going. Those are hard days. I think it’s just to get some competitiveness out of us and build our fitness level.”
SLU has a program on the brink of a breakthrough. Shields’ teams produced a record of 47-11-5 from 2016 to 2018 with one NCAA Tournament appearance. Making a return will mean having to win the conference tournament because the Billikens will not have a chance to move up in the RPI even if they keep winning.
The pieces certainly are in place. Alli Klug is a returning second-team All-American. Goalkeeper Mary Niehaus is healthy after missing the 2018 season because of a knee injury. She is 10th in the country, with a .384 goals-against average.
And Friedrich continues to look like a major recruiting coup. The 5-foot-2 midfielder set a program record with 30 points as a freshman and is building on her resume.
“We had the same nonconference record (6-3-1) we had a year ago, but there are expectations when you have the year that we went on to have,” Shields said.
“We knew when we didn’t get the results at Louisville, Notre Dame and Oklahoma State we really had to win the (A-10) tournament this year. It’s a bummer, but at least it’s at home and you know where you stand.”