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Brauer, Jakovich anchor backfield for No. 21 Xavier

Brauer, Jakovich anchor backfield for No. 21 Xavier

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During their club soccer days, Grace Brauer and Hayley Jakovich were rivals, going head-to-head with their St. Louis Scott Gallagher squads.

Now, as good friends and roommates, they share the middle of the backfield at Xavier University, one of the top women’s soccer programs in America. The Musketeers, who opened the season with seven consecutive wins, were ranked 17th in the nation before stumbling a bit in a 1-1 draw at Bowling Green last week. This week, they’re ranked 21st.

Xavier (7-0-1) opens Big East Conference play Thursday at Providence (5-2-1).

“To be honest, I think we needed a result like that before conference play,” Jakovich said. “Bowling Green plays a very physical game and we struggled with that. But we’re still undefeated.”

Brauer agreed: “We know we can play better. It’s frustrating, but you try to learn from it and make sure you’re a better team moving forward.”

Added Xavier coach Nate Lie: “We haven’t been very good over our last few games. As a coach, you talk about focusing on the little things and sometimes a young team has a tough time with that when you’re still winning. Hopefully, this will get us re-focused.”

A young squad coming off a 3-6 COVID-impacted season in the spring, the Musketeers were picked seventh in the Big East coaches’ poll.

“A little hard to swallow,” Brauer said, “but that’s okay because we like being the underdog.”

Xavier opened the season on Aug. 19 with a 1-0 win at then-No. 21 St. Louis University that was special for St. Louisans Brauer and Jakovich.

“I was a little nervous, opening the season in front of so many family and friends,” Brauer said. “But we played great; it was an outstanding way to start our senior season.”

Jakovich agreed: “That night was a career highlight for me. Getting a chance to start the season at home, in front of my family and all the people from Scott Gallagher, it really brought my whole college experience full circle.”

The Musketeers, who opened this season with seven one-goal wins, are used to being successful under Lie. He took over in 2017 for longtime coach Woody Sherwood — the man who recruited both Brauer and Jakovich — and guided the squad to the Big East regular-season and postseason tournament titles in 2019. That season, the Musketeers finished 17-4-2, beat Virginia Tech for their first NCAA Tournament win and finished the season with a program-record 13 shutouts.

That year’s backfield unit featured Brauer and Jakovich.

A two-time Post-Dispatch All-Metro performer, Jakovich, 22, helped lead Eureka to a state championship in 2017 and to a third-place finish in 2018. She’s been a fixture in the middle of the backfield at Xavier as well since arriving.

“My strength is my ability to read the game, to put myself in good position and to make strong passes out of the back to our attackers,” said Jakovich, who credits much of her game to Gallagher coaches Matt Stichling, Steve Pecher, Scott McDoniel and Ralph Richards as well as Eureka’s Gary Schneider.

“From the start, Hayley was thrown into the fire,” said Xavier’s Lie. “I played central defender, too, and I’m not an easy coach to play for. I expect things done a certain way. I know I was tough on her that first season, but she took what I said, she grew and it helped us develop a special trust. She went from being a freshman to being a team leader.

“She plays the game calm and her ability to play quality balls out of the back makes her a weapon for us.”

Brauer, 21, grew up as an attacking player — she scored 50 career goals and earned All-Metro recognition at Belleville East High — and began her college career as a forward/midfielder. But she seems to have found a home playing alongside Jakovich in the Musketeer backfield.

“I was looking for ways to help the team and after talking it over with Hayley, I took the idea to Coach,” Brauer recalled. “I still get a little jealous when I’m watching shooting drills in practice, but I’m happy to be contributing to the team. Hayley and I work well as a team. At this point, I feel like my experience as a forward helps me because I know what forwards want to do when they get the ball.

“I work hard to make sure I’m in position to defend and when the ball comes in my direction, my focus is on doing whatever I need to do to stop the threat. I enjoy the responsibility you feel as a defender.”

Lie was skeptical at first, but Brauer has managed to win him over.

“I love how Grace competes, she’s a natural leader and she’s super-fit,” the coach said. “Each year, I’ve looked at others in that spot, but Grace always seems to win the job due to her steady play back there. She plays with a lot of heart and has a warrior mentality that really fits in well with our young group.”

Lie added: “Hayley and Grace are special, on and off the field. They’re everything we want our student-athletes to be and they’ve been keys to the success of our program.”

With Scott Gallagher, Brauer’s main influences were coaches Shawn Hewitt and Laura Ridolfi.

Due to COVID, both Jakovich and Brauer are eligible for another season at Xavier. But Brauer, an accounting major, already has a job lined up in St. Louis. And Jakovich is undecided.

“At this point, my focus is on this season,” the human resources major said.

Another local player on the Xavier roster is freshman Chloe Netzel, who leads the squad with seven points on three goals and an assist. She’s a Liberty High product who led the area with 54 goals last spring.

“She has a chance to be special, a real difference maker,” Lie said.

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