A lot of factors seemed to lean in St. Louis University’s favor as the Billikens waited to find out how their season was viewed by the NCAA Tournament women’s soccer selection committee.
They have a 10-game win streak and one of the best winning percentages in the country with a 15-1 record. They are No. 7 in the Ratings Percentage Index with a win over No. 2 Arkansas.
But before the 48-team field was announced Monday, the chairman of the selection committee said that RPI was not an important factor this season due to the inability of many teams to play nonconference games.
If being No. 7 in the RPI was of little consequence, SLU players and coaches were left wondering if they had done enough to earn one of 16 byes for the postseason.
As it turned out, another undefeated Atlantic 10 season and the win over Arkansas helped SLU secure the No. 15 overall seed, a bye and a second-round meeting with the winner of a game between Washington and Liberty.
“I honestly wasn’t expecting the bye,” coach Katie Shields said. “I expected to play the first game. It’s cool to get the respect of the bye.”
All games in the tournament will be played in North Carolina. The Billikens (15-1) will not play until April 30 in Cary, N.C. If they win, they would likely face No. 2 seed North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
Southern Illinois-Edwardsville also made the field as the champion of the Ohio Valley Conference and will face Virginia on April 28 in a first-round game with the winner playing No. 12 seed BYU.
The SLU and SIUE rosters are loaded with St. Louis-area players. The Billikens have 17 players from the area and the Cougars have 16.
SLU’s last two appearances in the postseason ended with first-round losses to Kansas in 2018 and Notre Dame in 2019. The Billikens will be looking for a breakthrough with a team that has not lost in the A-10 in three seasons.
“The first two championship teams earned respect, and people are used to seeing our name,” Shields said. “You look at the resume the current team put together, and (a bye) was probably the right decision. Give a lot of credit to the first group that broke through and the next one that delivered again. We definitely have national respect now and have to keep earning it.”
SLU is tied for fourth in the country in winning percentage at .938 with North Carolina and is tied for first among teams that have played at least 15 games.
The women’s soccer season has been split between the fall and spring. Many conferences played in September and October, which is the usual time of year for D-I soccer. Others, such as the A-10, waited for spring. Some teams that played in the fall added games in the spring.
Few teams that played strictly in the spring were able to get in as many games as SLU played. The Billikens were not impacted by COVID after the start of the season and only had games canceled due to bad weather.
“We crammed in a lot where as some played in the fall,” junior forward Emily Groark said. “We didn’t get that chance but packed them in the spring, especially playing teams like Arkansas and Oklahoma State.”
This SLU team is heavily laden with freshmen and sophomore starters, along with a smattering of key juniors and seniors. Because of the youthful makeup of the season, playing a nearly full schedule was important.
It allowed Shields to see first- and second-year players in a lot of situations. Freshman Hannah Larson and sophomore Abbie Miller tied for the team lead with eight goals. Freshman Emily Puricelli started every game in goal, and she had freshmen Lyndsey Heckel and Sophia Stram protecting her on defense.
Without a nonconference schedule, Shields said, “We don’t get the resume to get a bye.” Additionally, it allowed a young team to gain experience.
“We start four or five freshmen on a given day, and to be able to play Oklahoma State, Arkansas and Xavier allowed us to make mistakes, grow and be prepared to do well in the A-10,” she said. “And now we have experience against some of those teams at tournament time.”