With six games left in its regular season, Northwest soccer is teetering on the edge of its first postseason berth since 2012.
After fighting through 220 minutes of soccer over the weekend, coming away with extra-time draws against Nebraska-Kearney Oct. 11 and Fort Hays State Oct. 13, the Bearcats (3-6-3) find themselves toeing the line between a breakthrough and breakdown in the MIAA.
Northwest sits tied with Rogers State for the No. 8 spot in the MIAA. Both teams tout a 1-2-2 record in conference play, fighting one another for what would be the final spot in the MIAA Tournament.
“Yeah, it will be a disappointment (if we don’t make the postseason),” coach Marc Gordon said. “I kept telling them: ‘Give yourselves a chance at the end to get in. Because anything can happen once you’re in.’”
For Northwest, the upcoming weekend could prove to be make or break. The Bearcats will square off against Rogers State Oct. 18, their most direct competitor for the MIAA tournament’s final seed, before taking on Northeastern State Oct. 20.
A win over Rogers State would place the Bearcats firmly in the postseason conversation, giving them sole possession of the conference’s No. 8 seed, at least for a few days. A draw with Rogers State would only tighten the gridlock between the two teams. A loss would place Northwest on the outside looking in.
Gordon, though, in his second year at the helm of the program, isn’t interested in crunching the numbers. His focus remains on coaching his team into the conference tournament.
“The desire and the belief of what the team (and) the players are capable of doing together is growing stronger,” Gordon said. “I just — this group can get it done. They can get this done.”
With the matchup against Rogers State comes a certain degree of unfamiliarity. The Hillcats are new to the MIAA after spending last season as a member of the Heartland Conference. For Northwest, the key to earning a win over the Hillcats will be an increased focus on consistency, Gordon said.
In their most recent matchups with Fort Hays and Kearney, Gordon said the Bearcats showed the ability to win both games but suffered brief lapses, allowing the Tigers and Lopers to score game-tying goals. In short, Gordon said the Bearcats need to be able to hold a lead once they take one.
Emilie Swaerd, a freshman midfielder from Norway, has adapted to a different style of soccer in America as the Bearcats have adapted to the inconsistencies of the MIAA. She said she thinks Northwest could and should make a postseason push. The Bearcats’ performance this week, she said, will be telling.
“With all the progress we’ve just made in that short amount of time. We don’t give up,” Swaerd said. “We tied two times this weekend but we just keep fighting, even in overtime, ‘til the last minute.”
Swaerd’s sentiments were echoed by fellow freshman midfielder Merel Marting. Marting, a native of Belgium, said the key to making a postseason push was to put goals away when opportunities arise.
“Throughout this season, we’ve definitely been getting better and better, and that’s what we wanted to do. That was our goal getting into this — that we keep progressing and getting better,” Marting said. “If we stay on it now, (the) postseason is definitely within reach.”
After limping to a 2-15 record a season ago, Northwest’s residency on the bubble of the postseason seems unlikely in retrospect. Gordon’s first season at the helm came with somewhat of a culture shock to the players held over from coach Tracy Hoza. The Bearcats spent much of last season focused simply on manufacturing goals, only managing to net 9 goals in 17 games.
This season has just been different, Gordon said. Northwest is focused on tactical improvements and increased intensity. Thus far, this season has been defined by improvement. Gordon hopes it ends up being defined by a postseason berth, underscoring the initial steps in a changing team culture.
“There’s a long way to go,” Gordon said. “But there’s still hope here.”